Paper Heart: Arcmanoro Niles discusses his work with Virginia Wagner
“My Heart is Like Paper: Let the Old Ways Die.” The show title says its piece in black wall text as I entered the Rachel Uffner Gallery (it ran from March 8 to April 28, 2019). I greet the artist, Armanoro Niles, who is dressed in a wide brimmed hat, jean jacket, and leather boots. Behind him, his paintings radiated color – aqua greens, ruby pinks, and gold oranges. I was studying the images online before our conversation but was taken aback by the punch they pack in person. A feeling of immediacy is heightened by the fact that the life-sized groups and single figures acknowledge my presence with their gaze.
In writing about the exhibition, I could have played very happily on my own in the domestic spaces of Niles’ paintings. However, I was intrigued by the relationship that Niles has to the people he paints and the pseudo-autobiographical content of the scenes. I felt this could be another lens in which to view work already rich in narrative and pictorial content.
Perhaps Niles’ greatest feat with this show was pinpointing emotional, psychological dynamics in and between the figures. As humans, we are wired to diagnose these dynamics and then situate ourselves within them. As we meet the eyes of the various figures in the room, we become part of their web of relationships, which can be off putting at times and also deeply affecting.
Was there a first piece that started the series, that sparked it for you?
The last show I did was all outdoor scenes. It was a tour of my neighborhood and the people in it. There was also a little tiny still life of a kitchen with nobody in it. And I just remembered thinking, ‘Oh, I never went inside the house!’ Then I started thinking about who was in there, thinking about different spaces in the house where I could walk in on people reflecting on their life. And from there, I painted my grandfather in the kitchen.
Can you tell me how you go about putting the paintings together?
Everything that is orange is the ground. It’s acrylic. You see these red lines here? That’s the drawing and that’s everywhere. It’s the second step. And in that red, I do the values.
Like a grisaille. You studied traditional painting at the Academy?
I did study this indirect type of painting.
And by indirect you mean…
Layering. Mixing optically. Painting it in different stages. Going back and painting a color and seeing how the color on top interacts with what’s underneath. Direct is mixing all of the colors on the palette. You always do a mixture of both but I lean more heavily towards indirect painting because each part is built in steps. And I like each step to be visible at the end. I put the texture on with a roller. And, after that, I cover the whole painting in gloss medium before using oil. It seals the glitter but also it makes everything smooth again. And then when I get to the skin there’s a subtle difference in texture to help with the space.
Did you use the same method and colors of oil paints for all the skin colors?
Yes. So even on the blue ground it’s all the same colors. Throughout school, I was always dissatisfied with my skin tones. I felt that there was a lot more color in darker flesh that I wasn’t pulling out. I don’t know if it was from an old photo, but I was going to make this painting and I was like, ‘Oh it looks orange, so what if I make the ground orange and paint it with the bright colors that I see in the skin and then go back and glaze it with brown.’ But I just never went back and glazed it. After that, I decided not to use any neutrals in my palette.
When I think about paint I think about it as built on oppositions — thin and thick, texture no texture, light and dark, cool and warm.
That’s how you get tension and resonance.
I also think about how quickly the light comes back to your eye. The acrylic is a lot more opaque and dry with less layers, so the light comes back to your eye quicker because there’s not much there. The skin is done in oil. It has to go through the red, through the yellow, through all the different colors, and then it comes back a little slower, and that’s what gives it the shine.
I would say glow more than shine. The acrylic has a reflective shine. The body seems to keep its light within it. It has a golden quality. Where do you see yourself in the work? That’s you in the painting, right?
Yes, a lot of them are me. I’m around and easy to work with as a model.
But how do you orient yourself to the figures of you?
A lot of this is stuff that I’ve experienced and am recreating. Or it’s something someone’s told me and I’m like, ‘What did that feel like?’ and I try to put myself in that space.
It’s almost like you’re casting yourself.
I think I used to want to be an actor. Or, I don’t think I did. I did when I was a kid.
Me too. I teach this class called the Bestiary about illuminated manuscripts and animal stories and we look at marginalia. All the things that monks drew on the edge, which are often tiny lude creatures– copulating animals, nuns lifting up their skirts, a tree growing genitals. Your little gremlins remind me of those.
I call them Seekers. I first started putting this Egyptian fertility sculpture – basically an orgy scene — in my paintings. I wanted the regular figures to be vulnerable and interacting with each other and whoever’s looking at the painting but then the other creatures, the Seekers, to be impulsive. Whatever’s going to make them happy in the moment, that’s what they’re going to do.
I was thinking about how (when I was young) my mom would always say never go too far from the porch and I felt that these other things were influencing her decisions. And also thinking about how sex and violence started to influence things that I did.
Kind of creeping in from the edges of your life?
Yeah. I would do things, but really it was more about this other thing. Even if I didn’t realize. I’d be up at night thinking, why did I do that?
It is a simple idea in some ways and yet as complex as anyone’s relationship with the invisible things that haunt us. The Seekers are so well integrated into the composition that they don’t actually look as strange as they are. At first, we don’t even question them. And then we’re disturbed that we didn’t.
And sometimes people don’t even see them, which I think is kind of cool.
I think they’d be happy not to be seen; they have their own agenda. And they probably register subconsciously. They’re also agents of perverse sexuality. This one feels like he’s riding the other creature. This one is like when you cut a worm in half and the other half wiggles out and..
.. becomes its own thing. He’s always chasing that thing and I was thinking maybe it’s a part of himself that he lost and is trying to get back.
You are letting us in and being very generous with what you are showing us emotionally and pictorially and yet some of the figures look at us like, ‘What are you doing here?’
I did want them to feel like they are engaging you, inviting you. Even if they’re turning away – I wanted it to feel like they are choosing to do that.
So, there is some agency in the knowledge that they’re in a painting?
Yes. You’re walking into their space.
I’m really interested in the gaze in ‘Does a Broken Home Become a Broken Family.’ Is this your family?
Yeah it’s my mom and my sister, my nephew, and me. I was thinking about what happens when a family doesn’t grow up together, because I didn’t grow up with my sister. So I wanted them all to be separated from each other. They’re separated by the counter. I’m separated from them.
I know some artists struggle with how much to reveal about the dynamics of their own life and the people closest to them. Because often that’s the richest source material they have but the process of exposing it could make them vulnerable.
Oh, I don’t mind.
Do they mind?
I don’t think they mind. Also, it’s just a painting and they’re all just sort of standing around in the kitchen so it’s not unfamiliar.
They are and they aren’t. There are these wild sexual and violent Seekers dancing around them. It’s charged.
I’m actually a super private person. So maybe, here I’m not. This is my way of connecting to people.
I also feel implicated in this painting. Because if you’re the figure on the left and they’re not looking at you, then they must be looking at me. I’m grateful someone let me in the door, but I feel put on the spot. And I need to weave between Seekers shagging and those with knives in their hands just to enter the kitchen.
I want you to feel like you are walking into the space. That you are a part of it. That you are just late to the party.