By April Gornik
Guest Columnist
North Haven, Long Island, NY, USA

Arcmanoro Niles received his B.F.A. from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and his M.F.A. from the New York Academy of Art. He has participated in exhibitions at the David C. Driskell Center (College Park, MD), Long Gallery (New York, NY), Guild Hall (East Hampton, NY), Flowers Gallery (New York, NY), Shangahi University (Shangahi, China), and Sophia Wanamaker Gallery (San Jose, Costa Rica). A recent recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant, he lives and works in Brooklyn. His most recent exhibit was at Rachel Uffner Gallery (New York, NY), where I visited him for this Conversation.

APRIL GORNIK: Let’s get right to the orange. It’s such a powerful, unremitting color in your work. I underpaint a lot with reddish colors and sometimes think of it as lifeblood underneath whatever ends up on top of it in the finished work. How do you think of the orange? Where did it come from?

ARCMANORO NILES: I think of the orange as a color that adds this intensity to these seemingly calm situations. My paintings have a lot to do with what’s going on underneath the scene; when a person is just walking down the street, alone, what’s their
Arcmanoro Niles
story? What’s walking with them? What are they thinking about, worried about, what’s shaping their decisions…. That’s where the “
seekers” come into play, too. But I didn’t start off thinking of the orange that way. I was searching for, as contradictory as this sounds, a bright, chromatic color that was a mid-tone in value. Once I decided I wanted to accentuate the golden tones, deep reds and purples that I saw in flesh, I was looking for a color that would support that change in my palette. It wasn’t until after I did the paintings that I started to see the how the orange heated up these calm situations. 

APRIL GORNIK: You studied at the New York Academy of Art, with all its strict foundation work. Do you think it was helpful in how your work has evolved? And has your work grown out of it, or has it leapt past it?

ARCMANORO NILES: My work has grown from that training. Before the New York Academy I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art [also a traditionalist school]. I really wanted to learn the skills to depict the people and situations that I encounter in my life. During my time at those schools, Vincent Desiderio was teaching there and he really helped me conceptualize color and light and helped me to understand how to paint indirectly. It’s a process that is very essential to my paintings, especially when it comes to painting the flesh over the orange. Without my background at NYAA and PAFA I think my paintings would be very different, or not exist in this way at all.

Stipulations of Love

APRIL GORNIK: Arc, you have such powerful, frontal images in your work. Your subjects look right at the viewer. You’re also a really direct, friendly person. Are your subjects alter egos, or do you think of them as your family, or a neighborhood, or…? Who are all these people?

ARCMANORO NILES: Lately, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’m working on some new paintings now where I go from feeling like it’s a scene I’m walking into, to feeling like it’s a memory and I’m looking back at myself. It’s hard for me to separate the subject being other people, as opposed to it being me, because the situations that I depict come from me trying to understand how something feels and what may have led a person to live the life they do. What does it feel like to look in the mirror and realize you’re older and wonder if you’re not so different from your mom? Or what does it feel like to be in a relationship and want to connect but don’t know how?    

What Time Had Done

APRIL GORNIK: In spite of the friendliness of your subjects, there are also characters that lurk in the background. We’ve talked about them before as little, or not so little, devilish presences. Can you describe their role in your work? Are they mischief-makers or real threats? 

ARCMANORO NILES: I’ve been calling them Seekers. I wanted to have these impulsive creatures in the paintings that did whatever was going to make them immediately feel good or happy. I wanted them to be the opposite of the people in the paintings who connect and allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other. The Seekers avoid doing that. The paintings are about coping mechanisms, and I was thinking about how people deal with trauma no matter how big or small, how it affects them, do you decide to avoid it or open up and deal with it. So I wanted the Seekers to be cute and playful, not bad or evil, because I think actions are often demonized when a person is really just sad or hurting and wants to feel good. I know my actions have been misinterpreted at times.

The Gift of the Offspring

APRIL GORNIK: I’m afraid of knives. Guns and clubs are also scary, of course, but there’s something about a knife that seems particularly threatening. Some of the scariest little ghouls in your work are busily cutting things—things that look flesh-like, and sometimes very phallic—with knives. Who are those ghouls and do you think of them as threatening, or as just co-existing with everybody else in your work? Are they in cahoots with the line-drawing spirits (who often look female, with big boobs)?

ARCMANORO NILES: Yes, they are in cahoots with the line drawing figures; they are both Seekers. I wanted to give a physical form to the things I feel influence how people in my life make decisions and decide to move about the world. I focus on violence and sex. The little guy with the knife is more destructive; sometimes he’s cutting into himself. The line figures are more sexual, but both of them are seeking immediate comfort from what they are feeling. I set out to make them these little cute guys, but I’m realizing a lot of people find them scary, probably because they are cute and smiling but appear to be up to something. 

When We Were Young

APRIL GORNIK: What does the idea of a playground mean to you? You have a lot of playgrounds in your work, and kids seem to be sheltering in them. Is that a fair thing to say?

ARCMANORO NILES: Yes, that is fair to say. I do think of the playground as a shelter and sort of a classroom. I don’t remember anything I really learned in class when I was in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade, but I do remember the lessons I learned on the playground. How to interact with others, what its like to have a crush, to learn about all the different groups and cliques kids have and how to move about the world in that context. I feel like those lessons stayed with me and probably everyone else that was there, and had a big influence on how the rest of my interactions with people evolved. Looking back it’s so silly – why would that affect us so much? But back then it was so serious, somewhat dependent on your economic status. After a certain age serious things happen on the playground. And that’s true for kids that are well off too. Things go down on the playground for them also, but just different types of things.

The Classroom

APRIL GORNIK: You just started teaching at Montclair. Are you finding it inspirational, distracting, fulfilling? All of the above?

ARCMANORO NILES: I find teaching fulfilling. I learn a lot about myself when I teach, and I’m always questioning what I tell my students. It makes me question my beliefs and motives for the things I do in the studio. 

APRIL GORNIK: You’re squarely putting yourself in the great tradition of figurative painters. Who are some of your art heroes, and why?

ARCMANORO NILES: First and foremost is Caravaggio. Before I was introduced to his paintings I had no interest in figurative work, I was painting abstractly and wanted to be an abstract painter like Rothko. But when I was introduced to Caravaggio’s work it gave me a way in, allowed me to open myself up to figurative work. There’s his technique, which was just at the top of the game, how he uses light and shadow, how he conceptualizes the organization of light in the painting. His method of describing form has influenced how I paint my figures. But before I even understood all that was going on technically in his paintings, I fell in love with how he took biblical stories and made them about his life in Rome, what was happening in back alleys with the people he knew and spent his time with, poor people, pimps, gangsters, panhandlers, street kids and prostitutes. Then there are painters like Kerry James Marshall, Eric Fischl, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby whose images are so powerful, and their technique just pulls you in. Kerry James Marshall’s decision to exaggerate what was important to him in the flesh of his figures pushed me and helped shape my ideas of how to depict what was important to me about flesh. Eric Fischl’s and Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s compositions are so strong and their paintings can be so intimate, so tender and sometimes heartbreaking. I admire how brave theses artist are to paint big bold images and also be vulnerable and paint about their life, family, friends, the bad times, and the uncomfortable times. They’re so honest. I’m a very private person and I’m quite shy. It’s artists like them that give me the courage to begin to open up a bit about who I am. 

The Magic of Youth

APRIL GORNIK: Glitter. Honestly, it’s not something I look forward to seeing in painting, and yet somehow you’ve managed to make it work exceptionally well in your work! How did it happen that you started using it in the first place?

ARCMANORO NILES: That decision came out of my training, thinking about Caravaggio, and sort of conceptualized through Vincent Desiderio. I’m always thinking about light and the rate of speed with which it bounces back to your eye depending on how it’s painted, opaque or transparent. I had been thinking about how hair, which was just a solid orange color in my previous body of work, would look like a glowing halo at times. I started thinking of what materials I could use to really have it bounce back to the eye and shimmer. The first thing that came to mind was gold leaf, a material that has been traditionally used for halos, but I decided to try glitter because I love color. I never liked glitter in paintings, but I was very fortunate to have a residency at Guild Hall House in East Hampton, NY, where they told me I didn’t have to make anything and that no one had to see it if I did, and that gave me the courage to start experimenting with glitter.  

APRIL GORNIK: Glitter brings me to the subject of light in your work. In mine, I look for actual light to play with. You often have multiple light sources, and sometimes people and buildings have an inner glow, but your light seems to me generally more like the light in dreams. It’s sometimes rich, sometimes caustic, and somewhat unnerving. Do you think about light in your work, and if so, how?

When We Played As Kids

ARCMANORO NILES: I do think about light a lot, it’s very important to me when I’m making a picture. I want the light to be embedded in the image, to appear like it’s coming from within the figurers, like the canvas has a life of its own.


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