Arcmanoro Niles (b. 1989, Washington, D.C.; lives and works in New York, NY) makes vivid, brightly-hued paintings that expand our understanding of traditional genre painting and portraiture. Niles offers a window into seemingly mundane moments of daily life―a child seated at the table for breakfast, a man about to get into his car, a couple in their bedroom―with subjects drawn from photographs of friends and relatives and from memories of his past. The paintings, though intensely personal and autobiographical, engage in universal subjects of domestic and family life while also making reference to numerous art historical predecessors, including Italian and Dutch baroque, history painting, Color Field painting, and ancient Egyptian sculpture. Though drawing from many styles and genres, Niles is particularly inspired by the paintings that 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio created of daily life through representations of his family and friends. In depicting not only people close to him but the places and times they inhabit, Niles creates his own record of contemporary life.
A signature aspect of Niles’ work is his use of vibrant oranges, pinks, purples, blues, and greens, which he layers, color after color, to create a saturated glow. The brown skin of each figure is rendered with a gold-like tone, their hair a glimmering halo of purple, orange, or hot pink glitter. Initially working in more traditional realist modes, in 2015 the artist began to create paintings with highly vivid color as a response to his frustration at not being able to achieve the depth of tonality he saw in the skin tones of his family and friends. Once he began to incorporate oranges and pinks into the background scene, he was able to achieve a depth and energy in his work that solidified his methods and shifted the way every painting has looked since. During this period, Niles also began to incorporate what he calls “seekers” into his work. These seekers take the form of small, gestural characters and more fleshy, gremlin-like figures that represent our most basic human impulses and desires. “Seekers,” says Niles, “are more impulsive, chasing whatever they think will make them happy in that moment, with no fear of consequence, while the human subjects are more vulnerable and open with their feelings.” The seekers both move the viewer formally through the painting and invite us to imagine what events might have occurred before or after the scene depicted, hinting at the inner motivation for each figure.
In addition to the seekers, Niles’ titles often suggest the underlying narrative behind the seemingly mundane scenes. In Longing for Change (I’ve Given Up on Being Well), 2019, Niles portrays himself lying face down on the carpet with a bottle of liquor on the floor next to him. In the lower left corner, two line-drawn seekers are portrayed engaged in oral sex while, off to the right, a gremlin-like seeker is cutting his leg with a knife in an act of self-harm. This self-portrait portrays the artist at a low moment in his life that the title suggests sparked the need for change. In works like Go Home to Nothing (Hoping for More), 2018, Niles depicts himself in a bar surrounded by friends. The only one not engaged in conversation, the scene suggests a sense of loneliness and perhaps desire for stability with a family/partner of his own. The gremlin seeker occupies the bottom left corner of the scene with a knife pointing towards himself, while the line-drawn seekers occupy the outer edges. One female seeker has her arm draped over the artist’s shoulder, suggesting his impulses and desires are the things currently keeping him company. Niles’ oeuvre offers an insightful documentation of the artist’s life and the passing of time. Like those of his early predecessors, each painting invites us to consider the time in which it was made, as well as our own histories. Through his use of color, painting style, and formal composition, Niles imbues his subjects with a saintly aura, acknowledging the significance of life’s mundane moments and positioning them within a larger art historical tradition.
Niles received a BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA in 2013 and an MFA from New York Academy of Art, New York, NY in 2015. Solo exhibitions of his work have recently been organized at UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles, CA (2020); Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York, NY (2019); Long Gallery, New York, NY (2017); and Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY (2016). His work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including Young Gifted and Black, The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, NY (2020); Afrocosmologies: American Reflections, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT (2019); Punch, Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, CA (2019); On Refusal: Representation & Resistance in Contemporary American Art, The MAC Belfast, Northern Ireland (2019); Problem Solving: Highlights from the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Mechanical Hall Gallery, University of Delaware, Newark, DE (2018); Portraits of Who We Are, David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD (2018); and Mutual Interest No. 3, Shanghai University, Shanghai, China (2014).
His work is in numerous public and private collections, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, NY; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art, Asbury, NJ; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; and the Yuz Museum, Shanghai, China.
Artist portrait by Jason Frank Rothenberg