Nathaniel Oliver’s Narrative Paintings of Contemporary Black Life Are Captivating Collectors
Nathaniel Oliver, installation view on the HOUSING stand at The Armory Show, 2022. Photo by Calli Roche. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
At the Armory Show last September, the stand of the New York gallery HOUSING, devoted to paintings by Nathaniel Olivier, impressed me. I was immediately impressed by the skillful brushstrokes that cover the artist’s large-scale narrative oil paintings of black life.
His canvas Hurry up, before it turns (2022), for example, features a vibrant arrangement of primary colors against shades of brown. It depicts a narrative of black people on the run, reminiscent of the history-focused mid-century paintings of the artist and educator. Charles White. Oliver, too, captures the aspirations and struggles of black life amid increased police violence.
I wasn’t the only fan at the fair: the small and mighty booth display of four large-scale paintings sold out quickly at noon on Thursday. Over the past two years, in fact, the emerging artist has been shocking the primary market, selling large-scale figurative paintings for $42,000 to $65,000 each.
Portrait of Nathaniel Oliver in his studio, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Portrait of KJ Freeman by Radar Wyzard, 2022. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
Oliver’s success comes as no surprise in the contemporary art landscape: his virtuoso, narrative paintings of contemporary black life evoke those of luminaries such as Noah Davis, Ernie Barnes, Kerry James Marshalland Aaron Douglas. Oliver uniquely captures the cultural rage and aftermath of events such as the 2020 police killing of George Floyd.
The young artist’s work has become a favorite with collectors who appreciate his seriousness and dedication to craftsmanship. His gallery owner KJ Freeman describes him as an emerging master in the field of painting. I spoke with Freeman, founder and director of HOUSING, in late September to learn more about what sets Oliver’s market apart from those of its peers.
Born in 1996 in Washington, DC, the artist received his BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2018, and his career has been steadily progressing ever since. 2020 has been a breakthrough year for the artist, who is now based in New York; he received a performance from HOUSING that year. It also proved to be a defining moment for Freeman.
Nathaniel Oliver, installation view of All aboard the mustard seed, 2022, at The Armory Show, 2022. © Nathaniel Oliver. Photo by Calli Roche. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
HOUSING showed Oliver in The Armory Show 2021 as part of a two-artist booth with the work of Allana Clarke. The stand received the Gramercy International Prize from The Armory Show. Freeman described that moment as eye-opening. “That moment made him a contender,” she said. She noted that it was bizarre to describe Oliver’s work in such a market-oriented way, given his aversion to market talk, even though “a great artist is always attached to a great myth”. .
“Nathaniel didn’t get the bells and [whistles] who manufacture the [usual] market success,” said Freeman. In other words, he did not benefit from the regular group exhibitions, press, interviews, major institutional residencies and scholarships that generally guarantee an artist’s success in the market.
Yet Freeman also mentioned that institutional acquisitions can be significant markers of success for an artist, even if they are often overlooked in the press. What matters to Oliver’s continued success in the primary market is that collectors, including museums, take notice of his art. In 2021, Oliver’s alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, purchased one of his works for its permanent collection, marking his first institutional placement.
Nathaniel Oliver, detail of Through winds and tides, 2022. © Nathaniel Olivier. Photo by Calli Roche. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
Nathaniel Oliver, detail of further together, 2022. © Nathaniel Olivier. Photo by Calli Roche. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
As Oliver’s success continues, HOUSING must expand in order to both meet the demand for his work and facilitate the artist’s success. The gallery established a physical location on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and partnered with more established galleries like Karma.
“I love the idea of collaborating and positioning the artist in the trajectory that suits them,” Freeman said. The gallery also protected Oliver by bringing in a larger gallery to help sell his work. Oliver co-signed to Karma in 2022, which ensures his paintings won’t be flipped quickly; the larger gallery’s financial situation means it can help avoid secondary market inflation and continue to fuel and prioritize the artist’s primary market.
“It’s a faith-based system,” Freeman added. At first, the gallery owner made the difficult decision to price his work at $10,000, which was above the standard market for figurative paintings by black artists. “His work is so phenomenal that you can’t deny the awards,” she said, “but I also had to reinforce why those awards were [what they were].” Alluding to the religious market system, Freeman believes his seriousness as a gallerist and Oliver’s dedication to his craft is what ultimately won over collectors to ensure his success.
Nathaniel Oliver, installation view of Hurry up, before it turns, 2022, at The Armory Show, 2022. © Nathaniel Oliver. Photo by Calli Roche. Courtesy of HOUSING, NY.
“A lot of people who buy [his] work are avid collectors who sit on museum boards, so there is an understanding of [the value] of his process and his work,” Freeman said. She likened her job to a best-kept-secret restaurant — anyone who “in the know” knows it’s phenomenal, even if it’s not high-profile.
Freeman also noted that media attention for artists is often unrelated to whether artists are doing well or not. The art world is awash with “trendy titles” – Freeman cited the recent Sotheby’s contemporary auction organized by Robert Pattinson as an example. “Why Does Batman Curate Contemporary Art and Why Do We Know It?” she asked. In his opinion, Oliver deserves more recognition for his phenomenal work.
There’s a seriousness to Oliver’s practice that’s rare for an artist in his twenties. “Oliver is less interested in the sociality of the arts and more focused on his studio practice. And when an artist is preoccupied with their craft as it is, collectors, curators and artists can sense it,” Freeman said. “Our journey with Nathaniel is to protect his autonomy as an artist.”
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s editor.