With Less Glitter, Arcmanoro Niles’s Illusory Spaces Gleam

There was a time when I was quite excited to see Arcmanoro Niles’s paintings that utilized glitter to render the hair on the heads and faces of Black figures. Both in his work and that of other artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Devan Shimoyama, I found that glitter was deployed to make Black people celestial, otherworldly, and especially with Shimoyama, quite surreal. But then glitter started to festoon contemporary painting, and became a fatigued device. I swear after looking at art for a whole day, I’ve even found it in my pocket lint. 

But in The City Lights Can’t Shine Quite like the Stars at Lehmann Maupin, Niles evinces a kind of maturity — and a willingness to keep probing the medium — in showing oil and acrylic paintings that do something unconventional under the cloak of conventionality. Across landscapes, detailed images of domestic interiors, and portraits that place figures in outdoor surroundings, he follows the rules of linear perspective to give the viewer the impression of a three-dimensional, lived world. But he uses the materiality of the paint itself to pull me into the compositions. 

Arcmanoro Niles, “Are You Listening to a Love Song about Someone New (Central Park and Things We Can’t Undo)” (2024), oil and acrylic on canvas, 90 x 67 1/2 x 1 7/20 inches

“Are You Listening to a Love Song about Someone New (Central Park and Things We Can’t Undo)” (2024) does this. The snow fallen on the tree limbs in the foreground seems to float above the painting’s surface, and its bright whiteness is tinged with lavender which is echoed throughout the bottom half of the scene that gives it a melancholy tenor. Then further back, by the cityscape, the snow is a phlegmy yellow, the texture of rotting glue, and sits uncomfortably on the branches. Niles moves me in, through, and around the canvas with these bright bits of wayfinding information. I’m then rewarded to find something meaningful: In this context, the shadows in the foreground of two figures standing just outside the canvas are shadows because they can’t dwell in either place neither the jaundiced, indifferent city nor the coldly forlorn park. Off camera, they hold hands, having made a home for each other with each other.

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Arcmanoro Niles, “Bracing for the Night (There’s Only Loneliness Insight)” (2023), oil and acrylic on canvas, 56 x 42 x 1 1/2 inches

Then look at the gleaming red of the flames in “Bracing for the Night (There’s Only Loneliness Insight)” (2023). The paint is not a natural color and again seems to float above the canvas, almost as if the fire was extracted from some mythic circumstances and domesticated here. Or perhaps because it has the power to ward off the night monsters, to the painter it reads as mystical. And this is all done with minimal use of glitter.

It has to be said, too, that each work in this show is gorgeously painted, with brushwork only visible when it serves the purpose of adding texture to specific parts of the image that make the illusory space more inviting. His felicitous use of color and texture as in the flames and snow doesn’t appear in every painting in the show. But it appears in enough of them that the lush work feels like Niles is finding his way, working upstream against the tide to the right dwelling place for him.

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Arcmanoro Niles, “Where Can I Go Where I Won’t End up Lost Again” (2023), oil and acrylic on canvas, 58 x 43 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches
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Arcmanoro Niles, “Got So Far from My Raising I Forgot Where I Come From (Spent My Youth among the Pines)” (2023), oil, acrylic, and glitter on canvas, 99 x 90 x 1 1/4 inches

The City Lights Can’t Shine Quite like the Stars: Got So Far From My Raising I Forgot Where I Come From continues at Lehmann Maupin gallery (501 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery and the artist.

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