by Jonathan Griffin
This summer, for the first time in two decades of drawing figures, Christina Quarles found out what it is like to be drawn by other people. During lockdown, she and a small group of friends and acquaintances organised socially distanced life-drawing sessions, taking it in turns to model.
“It’s such a wild experience! It’s so interesting,” the Los Angeles-based artist tells me, speaking over Zoom from a holiday rental on the Sonoma coast.
Being naked wasn’t the problem: “As an artist, you’re so vulnerable all the time, I’ll be naked — it’s the least of my troubles!” Rather, what was tough was remaining still with so many eyes on her. Quarles was astonished by the results. The drawings, she says, were “much more accurate to how I felt than any photograph that’s ever been taken of me. They were very true depictions of what I look like, in my mind.”
Since she graduated from a Masters programme at Yale University in 2016, Quarles, 35, has become celebrated for paintings that, in her words, are “portraits of living within your body, rather than portraits of looking at a body”.
In April, a survey of her work was set to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and another show planned at the South London Gallery later in the month. Both were shunted by Covid-19 into next year. (Her South London Gallery exhibition is now opening in March 2021, and her exhibition in Chicago on April 17 2021.) However, an exhibition of paintings made by Quarles during lockdown will open at the London gallery Pilar Corrias on October 8. Quarles tells me she landed on the show’s title in a book of Japanese poetry she discovered in her Sonoma Airbnb: “I won’t fear tumbling or falling/ if we’ll be joined in another world”.
In these dazzling and disorienting paintings, arms stretch out and multiply, legs tangle improbably, and figures overlap and interact in ways that suggest intimate encounters, one body enmeshed with another. Except — as Quarles points out — these are not necessarily multiple bodies, but might better be understood as different aspects of a fragmented self, or maybe shadows or reflections. Intimacy can take many forms, she says, and need not involve more than one person.
She defines intimacy as “any moment when we can exist fully within our fragmentation and contradiction. It’s this sort of fully embodied state.”
But under the pandemic, she says, our bodies have been redefined. Previously, even if we experienced our own bodies “as a jumble of parts”, other people generally appeared to be whole. She is fascinated by how carefully we look at others’ faces, while being so unaware of our own. Now, however, we interact over video calls and see our own faces just as coherently as we see images of others’. Meanwhile, in public, other people are hidden by masks and gloves — fragmented, Quarles notes, just as we previously only seemed to ourselves. “It’s sort of flipped the script.”
Born in Chicago to a white mother and a black father, Quarles moved to Los Angeles aged three, where she was brought up by her mother, a screenwriter, and her aunts — all creative and resourceful women. She lived close to the museum district known as the Miracle Mile — “a pretty diverse neighbourhood in the 1990s,” she says, “because it was a lot cheaper.”
Quarles feels as if she has lived in a fragmented body her whole life. Fair-skinned, she is often assumed (especially by white people) to be white, but she identifies more as black because, she says, “I find that within black identity we are more used to there being a spectrum of identity,” and because within the black community, people are more comfortable “talking about race and talking about what it is to be in a racialised body”. Of course, she adds, everyone lives in a racialised body, whatever their skin colour.
The word “spectrum” is one that Quarles uses often; she objects to binary notions of selfhood, which is why she prefers the term “multiracial” to “biracial”. She is also queer, and views gender and sexuality as existing on an infinitely nuanced and variable scale. Figures in her paintings, often rendered in luscious swoops of rainbow colour, feature “a lot of boobs and butts”, she says, but are usually ambiguously gendered or racialised.
In this new body of work, gradients and other evocations of raking light appear in several pictures. The reason is twofold. No longer zipping around the city as often as in pre-lockdown days, Quarles found imagery in her paintings influenced not by the world at large but her immediate environment: the home she recently bought with her wife, Alyssa Polk, in Altadena, a peaceful suburban neighbourhood in the foothills north of Pasadena, where her studio is 10ft or so from her back door.
At home, she found perfect gradients in the sky — especially, in California, at sunrise or sunset — and on her phone or computer screen: “Either highly natural, or highly digital — which I feel like is what my life is like right now.” One moment, she was observing subtle shifts in light and the changing seasons in her garden; the next minute, she was checking breaking news on her iPhone. Either way, fast or slow, the world was changing.
Quarles’s technique similarly melds the organic and the digital, the slow and the instantaneous. While she maintains a practice of drawing figures from life, she does so mainly to build up a library of possible forms from which to pull. “It’s a way of keeping sharp on the observation of certain idiosyncrasies,” she says, “like, all the weirdnesses that a body can do that are weirder than anything you would invent in your head.”
When faced with a blank canvas, she draws with her brush, without a model and without a plan. She responds to unforeseen shapes and combinations, things she never expected or intended. Then she photographs her painting, and imports it into Adobe Illustrator, where she can further distort, cut up, reorient and overpaint the picture on the computer. The result is then translated back to the canvas, only this time she might include digital effects too — smooth ombres, for example, or patterns that she masks out with a digital vinyl cutter in her studio. While it might sometimes look like collage, everything on the canvas is rendered in paint, she emphasises, even if she favours “super plasticky” acrylics.
Quarles remains seemingly ambivalent about the future. In her exhibition at Pilar Corrias, several titles betray an anxiety about where humans are headed — as nations, as a society, as a species. In “Tomorrow Comes Today (Come What May/Cum, Whatever, Maybe)”, a glowing blue rectangle — maybe a window, maybe an iPhone screen — frames the profiles of a kissing couple. Quarles maintains focus on what is closest at hand, while the future unfolds uncertainly in the background.
“This is the first time in my life where I haven’t been in the midst of everything. During the 1992 riots [in Los Angeles], it was happening all around me. I could hear sirens, and there was fire everywhere.” Finding herself in the peace and safety of her new home during this summer’s protests paradoxically created a renewed sense of urgency, she says. “I can use that extra strength to help all these terrible causes that are not necessarily affecting my day-to-day, but do affect my place in the world.”
First published: Financial Times, October 2nd 2020