Breeze blocks shaped like shamrocks and swans, floor tiles crudely and lovingly hand laid, graphically rendered snake plants, and suggestive slits. These patterns, stacked on top of each other in a new series of works by Nora Maité Nieves, make up what the artist calls “totemic paintings.” Straddling the line between painting and sculpture, they rest on the floor and lean against the wall, and like actual breeze blocks, some sections have holes, as if to let wind through to cool down the space. The works are explosively colorful (imagine an alternate universe where the Memphis Group started in San Juan instead of Milan) and engage with the design elements found throughout the Caribbean and Hispanic architectural diaspora. They represent a new stage in Nieves’s practice, probing how architecture and interior design seeps into our very identities, as well as the legacies that delineate body and environment, minimalism and maximalism.
Looking at the work in Clouds in the Expanded Field, it’s a little shocking to hear Nieves say she was inspired by minimalism. “My work is completely the opposite, it’s more Baroque, more maximalism,” she says. “But I feel more connected to [minimalism] than to abstract expressionism.” It’s less surprising if you recall that Nieves’s exhibition title is a riff on Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” the canonical text critically engaging the three-dimensional artworks and earthworks of the 1960s and ’70s that challenged notions of sculpture, painting, and architecture. The essay “really changed me,” Nieves says, as did Donald Judd’s essay “Specific Objects,” from 1964. “He talks about form, about materials,” she says, “the purity of the relationships between shapes and objects.”
But how did she get from the cool purities of Judd and Krauss’s insistence on space to the lush here-and-now-ness of her work?
Born in Puerto Rico in 1980, the artist spent a long time thinking about home after she moved to Chicago for her MFA in the late 2000s. And not just the concept of home. She found herself drawing mental maps of all the places she had lived in while growing up, which numbered over twenty. These floorplans drawn from memory helped her understand something about her own artistic habits and intentions. “I wanted to find out why I was interested in painting as a sculpture or as an object—like, why do I want to take the painting on the wall and put it on the floor and occupy space?” Around the time she graduated from SAIC in 2010, her work “was more referential to specific places.”
But over time, the use of specific visual memories, like the tiles in one of her childhood homes, evolved into a more abstract approach. “I have allowed imagination to come in and play with memory, too,” she says. “The way I construct an image, the way I put together different memories or parts of different places, it’s kind of like making a collage.” An energy pulses through Clouds in the Expanded Field that could only come from the real world, plants and human bodies in conjunction with the beautiful mess of making. But they contain an almost cartoon quality, existing between the sterility of form, but also teeming of representation.
Besides the totemic paintings, works like Vida (2022), with its colorful, leaf-like geometrical pattern surrounded by a terrazzo-like frame, has a whiff of Klintian spiritualism, but is executed with a roughhewn, coarse modeling paste, like a handmade architectural facade. Garden of Eden (2023) depicts forms that look like snake plants; Nieves was attracted to their graphic waviness, their use as an interior design plant that also functions as a sort of amulet for prosperity. The two forms in the middle represent maleness and femaleness, indicated by the left figure’s blueness and the pink, right figure’s vaginal-like opening. These works represent Nieves’s ongoing interest in paintings as objects, using the paste, epoxies, and resin to create a more sculptural dimensionality, but are different in that they contain the hotbloodedness of life. “I wanted to talk more about desire and the body, and seducing the viewer,” she says.
The earthly and divine consummate fully in Nieves’s Clouds Over Red Field (2021). A mini version of the larger totemic paintings, this one actually hangs on the wall, and contains a dramatic red and fuchsia grid pattern, with two smaller cloud patterns attached to the top and bottom. Her interest in clouds formed during the pandemic. Nieves found herself outside a lot, looking up. After watching the movie Nope, Nieves saw an interview with director Jordan Peele, who had also spent a lot of time outside looking at clouds, which is where he got the idea for the alien film. Nieves realized she was tapping into a larger feeling. “It’s poetic, how clouds move,” she says. “They don’t have borders, or limits of where to move. They disappear and reappear again.”
Abstraction is a way of universalizing experience. But combining it with representative elements has led Nieves to an exciting vocabulary that touches on ideal forms, shapes, colors, and textures, but also real-world histories and the bodies caught up in them. “I’m coming from Puerto Rico, where we still have this colonial status,” Nieves says. Though her work doesn’t contain political content, she feels a certain kind of freedom in her exploration of abstraction, and a connection with others. “It’s always important that the work is not only about my story and about me me me,” she says. “It’s important that the idea and the sense of belonging is something universal that everyone has.”
The first work that greets viewers upon entering Clouds in the Expanded Field is a piece titled Moon Twins (2023). Two triangular works hang on the wall, containing a mosaic-like, black and white background, with colorful, abstracted snakes, breeze blocks, and other fundamental shapes floating around inside. They look a bit like diagrams of a cell, with the nucleus and mitochondria, except these are the structures and designs that have surrounded Nieves since she was a child. “The funny thing is,” she says, “I planned for that painting in the summer, and I’m pregnant now. And it turns out that they’re twins.” Again, the line between abstraction and representation wears thin.
“I don’t know,” she adds. “This is just the magic of life.”