Sex Wax and Surfing: An Interview with Artist Nicholas Cueva

Sex Wax (installation view). Image courtesy of Freight and Volume Gallery.

Nicholas Cueva’s solo exhibition Sex Wax currently on view at Freight and Volume is a mercurial collection of work which unravels the artist’s complex and metaphysical relationship with surfing. The show, titled after the surfboard product, Mr Zog’s Sex Wax, exploits the formal gray area between painting and sculpture by incorporating a variety of unconventional objects throughout the space such as: a surfboard shaped painting propped against a wall in the front room, a wetsuit suspended like a crucifix from the ceiling, and strips of caution tape applied directly to the walls and rubbed with streaks of surf wax. The inclusion of these objects expand upon and provide context for the surfer imagery Cueva renders in his paintings. Freight and Volume, a gallery known for embracing emerging artists, encourages methods of presentation which throw a proverbial wrench into the traditional “white cube” gallery aesthetic. We were able to sit down with Cueva and explore what went into making this latest body of work.

Katie Hector: Nick, thanks for taking the time to chat about your show. I’ve followed your career for years so I’m excited to pick your brain about this body of work.

Nick Cueva: Yeah, let’s jump in!

Nicholas Cueva, The Development of My Life, acrylic on fabric, 10 x 8 inches, 2018.

KH: So, I’ll address the most obvious question first. The show is dominated by scenes of surfers either on the shore or in the water about to catch a wave. Where does this motif come from and what entices you to revisit this scene?

NC: I wasn’t allowed outside much as a kid, just the backyard or the beach but I was always under my mother’s supervision. I learned to go inward and became creative and philosophical.

The beach was heaven for me.

Seeing men and women’s bodies, the unforgiving waves, the miracle of surfing… I felt I was part of this big beautiful thing and I must’ve been here for a reason. It was erotic. I felt less alone on the beach.

I made the first surfer paintings in the Fall of 2016. It was a revelation. At the time I sustained several other bodies of work but eventually realized all I wanted to do was paint more surfers.

KH: What does the image of a surfer signify for you?

NC: The surfers represent how we carry our burdens “the board” and how we interact with the world, “the water”. Your burden has the potential to become your vehicle but you have to luck out.

I think success and failure are always in dialogue with each other. How you handle life is seen by everyone else. Even your body language or how you carry yourself plays into that.

We all have to be patient for our moments. Wait for the right waves.

Nicholas Cueva, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, acrylic on fabric, 12 x 9 inches, 2018.

KH: How has the series evolved since 2016?

NC: It hasn’t evolved really. I mean I keep trying new things, but at its core it’s visually and conceptually the same structure. I guess working larger has evolved the work a little.

KH: I read a comparison made to your surfers and the “rückenfigur” a figure conventionally depicted from behind enveloped in an expanse of nature. Considering the historical context of the rückenfigur, are your surfers romantic or idealized in anyway?

NC: My surfers are slightly romantic, so I think that the idea of the rückenfigur is comparable.

But at the same time, no.

Casper Friedrich’s iconic wanderer surveying the mountains is a conqueror while the surfer that I depict, clumsily approaching the waves, is almost the opposite.

Nicholas Cueva, Walking Away, acrylic on fabric, 36 x 30 inches, 2018.
Nicholas Cueva, It’s a Lot of Bad Things, acrylic on fabric, 62 x 62 inches, 2018.

KH: I can see that. In a few of the pieces especially the larger paintings your surfers seem to be fighting with the waves. Bodies are fragmented, brushstrokes are frantic, and skies are dark and threatening. In my mind the handling of the human form in these paintings more closely resembles Otto Dix’s depictions of war veterans. Can you explain this dichotomy and why it was important to include both representations within the same space?

NC: I believe we repeat ourselves. Like waves coming into shore, people keep making the same mistakes. Otto Dix was taking in the insanity of that time, and I feel this time is insane too. People on the left and right, all over the world, are talking as if war is inevitable. I am watching it all unfold, and riding that wave.

The mainstream idea of a “surfer” has been cleaned up by the media. Surfing has a territorial and violent history. Gangs would fight over beaches. I sometimes compare the surfing paintings to Philip Guston’s depictions of klansmen.

Nicholas Cueva, Peak Shift (after Niko Tinbergen), acrylic on handwoven fabric, 12 x 9 inches, 2019.

KH: The surfers are typically represented in states of “readiness” or “readying” for a moment of action. Can you tell me why it’s important for you to reproduce a moment imbued with psychological anticipation?

NC: The surfers can’t be anything but ready. The wave they need hasn’t arrived yet. A surfer surfing is a trope, an ideal state of a competent person. The readying figure, on the contrary, may not be up to the task, but in that potential becomes the embodiment of hope and bravery. It might also just be posturing. It may end terribly. We don’t know how really ready we are.

Sex Wax (installation view). Image courtesy of Freight and Volume Gallery.

KH: Alright, another basic question. How did you decide upon the title Sex Wax ?

NC: I titled the show after that product and possible for the same reason they named the product that. Because it gets attention, sex sells !

KH: What’s with the caution tape installed on the wall of the gallery? Did you rub surf wax on the tape as well as on the front window?

NC: Yes.

The tape and window have Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax on them, a wax made to give better grip when the surfboard is wet.

It has this great smell that I wanted in the space. I also wanted something mysterious for people to encounter. I hoped it will attract the curiosity of the gallery visitor and I hope a few are inquisitive enough to touch it.

KH: I was drawn by a similar curiosity to the collection of stickers of logos and decals installed by the front door. I noticed a number of those symbols found their way into the paintings in overt and subtle ways. For me these symbols take on an occult quality. How do you see them functioning?

NC: Totally!

Stickers are almost an occult practice. Almost all mammals mark their territory, and stickers and tagging are a contemporary extension of that. The larger “animals” in our modern day ecosystem are the corporations who mark the territories they control. While we smaller critters scamper around in the undergrowth marking what we can.

I love stumbling upon areas covered in an explosion of stickers and tags around the city. It’s like a visual orgasm. A moment where all the pent up energy of a society comes out.

Nicholas Cueva, Error 404, acrylic on fabric, 12 x 9 inches, 2018.

KH: You utilize fabric and burlap, in lieu of traditional canvas and linen, as the substrates for your paintings. Responding to these textured and colorful surfaces seems integral to your work. In this exhibition you even included a number paintings on objects, for example the wetsuit piece. Can you speak to this inclination?

NC: Well, in grad school I got into a lot of arguments about painting. Albert Oehlen said I wasn’t painting, because I was so worried about the surface.

I try to make the paintings on stretched fabric a little absurd by letting a corner unravel or string hang down to draw attention to the material while still being serious about the formal aesthetics.

For me surface is memory and texture equals emotions. So much of our experience in life is textured. With touch screens an aspect of our shared experience is lost behind the glass. I’m tapping into missing our tactile experiences.

Nicholas Cueva, Bad Apple Bobbing, acrylic on fabric, 12 x 9 inches, 2019.

KH: Tell me more about that Bad Apple Bobbing the painting where the surfboards transform into horns and you worked a subtle face in the ripples of the waves. This seems like a new move to me.

NC: All the surfer’s paintings are roughly faces, the surfers are usually the eyes, the waves tend to make a nose and mouth. The sky the hair and the sun is the third eye. The faces encoded within each piece allude to a non-physical “watcher”. Sometimes the demon is a “watcher” with ill intent and inevitably rejects the surfers. This demon is more playful… but there are others, worse ones.

Sometimes the ocean “life” is an asshole. No matter what you try you get smacked around. The face is like a demon which keeps you from doing what you know is doable.

Nicholas Cueva, Bad Apple Bobbing, acrylic on fabric, 12 x 9 inches, 2019.

KH: What’s next for this series? Where do you see your paintings going?

NC: I’ve been working with the idea of setting up a fake surf shop for a while, a painting show framed within an immersive environment. I definitely want to include more stickers too.

I also have a “curtain” show along at the moment in the studio as well as series small painting in the works.

KH: Is there an artist talk, closing reception, or any additional events at the gallery while the show is installed?

NC: We are doing a screening of “Endless Summer” and “Surf Nazis Must Die” on May 4th, and an artist talk slotted works for the 11th of May.


Nicholas Cueva’s solo exhibition Sex Wax will be on view at Freight and Volume Gallery located at 97 Allen Street in Manhattan until May 12th, 2019.

Katie Hector

Katie Hector

Katie Hector is an artist, curator, and writer living and working in New York City. While holding a studio practice Hector is also an independent curator and partner at The Royal Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She has worked to organize and fundraise a variety of projects including international exhibitions, site-specific environmental installations, and over two dozen group shows, screenings, pop up events, and panel discussions.

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