In his new solo show at Reynolds Gallery, sculptor Raul De Lara takes a playful approach to images of his homeland in Mexico — a place that, as a DACA recipient, he cannot return to.
“I came to the desert to play with my homeland. No longer do I remember how she looks, feels, sounds, smells, or tastes. I came here because I miss her, and because she is invisible to me.”
These are the opening lines of the text written by Raul De Lara for his solo show, “Our Shared Backyard,” at the Reynolds Gallery, which opened earlier this month and will remain open for viewers until October 30. The exhibition displays sculptures lovingly and thoughtfully carved from wood into warm and brightly colored pieces that carry a little spark of something — life, maybe. There’s a vibrant playfulness in the cactus with a snowman mask, or the huge slab of tree that’s made to look as soft and inviting as the family futon.
These sculptures, as playful as they are, also tell the story of De Lara as an immigrant, struggling with the political realities of life as a DACA recipient while finding ways to connect with happiness and the disappearing memories of his homeland. DACA recipients who immigrated to the U.S. as children, like De Lara, have faced efforts to end the DACA program since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 — putting legal residency in doubt, and “currently living in limbo” where residents can’t return to their homelands without forfeiting a chance of gaining U.S. citizenship, according to the Center for American Progress.
“As a DACA recipient I’m always at the edge, the verge of getting deported,” De Lara said. “I’m waiting to hear what the fuck the White House decides to do with me, which sucks because I’m not homies with the White House … Living in a world for me where I truly don’t know what’s gonna come tomorrow as a DACA person is hectic, but while I’m here and while I found myself this home in this community and this chance to have a voice and share it, that’s what I’m focusing on.”
De Lara said he believes the subtle humor of his sculptures is just one of many ways to “access the other side” of opinion on immigration. To De Lara, the sculptures don’t have to be aggressive or forceful to be effective.
“I hope this brings people into my world rather than, like, me having to serve myself in a silver platter to the world,” De Lara said. “It always seems that we need to … offer ourselves to this imaginary viewer that’s going to validate us, you know? I’m trying to let you know this world exists, and you’re welcome to claim it.”
De Lara said that often, immigrants have to frame themselves as agents of change, work, or trauma. While he said he believes these narratives are often true, he wants to prioritize the celebration of immigrants’ identities. Not everything immigrants do, De Lara said, needs to be about solving the problems of themselves and others.
“It’s this idea of, ‘Why can’t I just be me?’” De Lara said. “Like, why can’t I make the work that comes from … from my country, or that’s rooted in me as the thing that it is, rather than having to tie the other external stories or occupy … language that I didn’t even understand?”
De Lara’s focus on storytelling is evident in his approach to crafting a narrative with the pieces he created for the show at Reynolds during his fellowship in Provincetown, Massachusetts. If the exhibition is a short story, De Lara said, each piece is a chapter of that story.
“White Passing,” one of the most striking pieces in “Our Shared Backyard,” is a green cactus made from a linden tree with a smiling snowman’s face tied on like a mask. It’s inspired by moments of De Lara’s life when others have questioned his Mexican heritage.
“I’ve experienced different treatment from people from my country with my status who might look a little different,” said De Lara. “People telling me, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you’re Mexican enough to be making Mexican work.’”
The narrative that brings the chapters of DeLara’s work together is the text he wrote for the exhibition. It includes subtle nods to what De Lara wants viewers to learn about him — his issues with immigration, his interest in kink, and his gender-fluidity — that he introduced in a passage about interactions with border control officers that played with traditional power structure roles.
These elements are not things that define De Lara’s work; instead, he uses these more intimate parts of himself to give context to the viewers of his sculptures.
“The story is not fictional. It’s actually something that happened to me.”
As an artist and a sculptor, De Lara said he’s always had a disconnect between the object that he’s using and the story he’s trying to tell. His artwork is an attempt to resolve that distance.
“There’s objects that can’t talk, right?” De Lara said. “In front of you, they’re not telling you, ‘Oh, I am about XYZ’ … Even as a little kid I was like, ‘How are people finding these crazy-ass meanings in this painting?’ Where did these stories come from? How can we have a closer connection between the thing and the story?”
De Lara’s connection to wood sculpture has deep roots in the value his family placed on beauty and craftsmanship. Growing up, De Lara was surrounded by people who regularly “used wood to create their world,” with hand-carved furniture. He feels he was born into a strong appreciation for craftsmanship and handmade artwork.
His father, an architect, crafted wooden structures, and his mother, an interior designer, filled them with beauty. De Lara’s grandmother designed the interior of casinos, and would bring her grandson on trips to collect quality fabrics. “I come from a family of creatives,” De Lara said.
He spent time in his father’s wooden furniture shop as a child, recognizing the materials and form that would come to be valued in his later work. “My learning as a kid was always through my hands and through my eyes, and not so much through spoken word,” De Lara said.
In De Lara’s very Catholic family, carved religious figurines seemed to have the ability to heal and aid. “I think growing up in a family that believes that these little chunks of wood have magical powers also helped me be able to believe in my work and believe in art, and the object,” De Lara said.
The choice of the two trees he worked with to create the two largest wooden pieces in his exhibition, “White Passing” and “Soft Siberian Elm,” was “intentional,” De Lara said. Each tree came to De Lara in a moment of serendipity. The first came from a man named Austin, who was named after De Lara’s Texas hometown and who also happened to be born there. When Austin’s Texan parents showed up, De Lara said that he thought, “Is this some sort of weird TV show? Are they gonna pull an intervention on me?”
The other tree was a victim of a thunderstorm outside De Lara’s fellowship studio in Boston. “We all woke up and this massive tree had fallen over in the parking lot,” De Lara said. “My car was parked right in front of it. If it fell the other way, my car would’ve been toast.”
Both trees came from trauma — one fell in a storm, and the other died from Dutch Elm disease — but De Lara focuses on giving the trees a new life, reborn as works of art that capture their spirits.
“Ghosts and spirits — I’m a full believer in,” De Lara said. “I sometimes vibe with materials in that way. If I explain it verbally to somebody it sounds goofy to them. You know, it’s not as magical to explain to you that I think there’s a ghost in the sculpture, if I didn’t tell you there is.”
One of De Lara’s most important materials is the Mexican desert sand he collected after swimming across the Rio Grande, which he keeps in a plastic bottle, as described in the text written for the exhibition. This sand has become De Lara’s “salt and pepper” — he sprinkles it on every piece he creates, into every paint he mixes. That sand carries the weight of De Lara’s connection to his homeland, which he hasn’t returned to since he left at the age of 12.
“That sand, coming from a specific place that is sort of a transitional point … is sort of a portal,” De Lara said. “For me, there’s something magical there.”
All photos courtesy Raul De Lara and Reynolds Gallery