Are the figures in a painting by Christina Quarles taking shape or dematerializing? Solidifying or dissolving? The viewer can’t be sure. That indeterminacy reflects the artist’s sense of who she is.
A mixed-race queer woman living in Los Angeles, Quarles was the breakout discovery of the New Museum’s “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” group show in 2017. In that setting, her paintings seemed to be addressing gender fluidity. But, as she told me then, it’s race, not gender, that has preoccupied her since childhood. “Mom is white, Dad is Black,” she explained. “I am fair-skinned and usually seen as white by white people, but I’m seen more as mixed identity in communities of color.” Her racial profile depends on the context of the moment. “My experience is firmly rooted in whiteness and Blackness, rather than a hybrid of the two,” she said.
Four years later, with her concerns more timely than ever, Quarles, 36, is having her largest solo museum show, which runs through August, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (The exhibition will travel to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.) “Legibility, the way we understand things, is through this either/or mentality, but the reality is we have a both/and situation,” she told me when we spoke again this past December. “And that’s where a lot of my work comes from.” She endorses what she calls “the idea of ambiguity as an excess of information” and observes that “there can be more legs than would normally go with one torso” in her paintings. “The viewer’s desire to see a cohesive figure will override the ambiguity.”
Her subjects usually possess female attributes, breasts in particular. “I like boobs in a picture, because they define weight,” she said. But the figures are not recognizably women—they are body fragments that waver on the edge of integration. Even her way of constructing a picture fluctuates between opposite poles. She will begin by making gestural marks with paint until bodily shapes seem to emerge. “I try to resist the urge to complete any figure or form when I first lay down the paint on canvas,” she said. “I’m always trying to pull out images that I didn’t originally plan. Maybe in this figure this was another leg, but then it became more interesting as an elbow.” At a certain stage, she will stop, photograph the painting-in-progress, and play with the digital image on her computer, adding patterned surfaces or angled planes, which she will then paint on the canvas by using stencils or laser-printed vinyl stickers. Along with producing very different-looking results, the processes feel different. “In painting, I learned to use the physicality of the body,” she said. “A wrist is a clumsy tool to make a circle, but the shoulder turns in a circular motion. Digital adds a different element. You’re just using your fingertips.”
The spontaneous painting and deliberate digital tinkering combine in a suggestive way. “What’s most interesting is her idea about being a mixed-race queer woman living in America at the present time, and relating how the self is constructed to how the painting surface is constructed,” said Mark Godfrey, a senior curator of international art at Tate Modern. “Going from the immediate quick gesture that is physical to the mediations that happen where she might be looking at Photoshop is a very interesting articulation of her way of living in the world. You are who you are, and you construct yourself differently for different audiences.”
Born in Chicago, Quarles moved to northern California with her parents when she was a small child, and then, after they divorced, to Los Angeles with her mother, who worked as a television writer and producer. Quarles was about 12 when she took her first life-drawing classes. A few years later, at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, she developed a drawing technique imparted by a teacher, Joseph Gatto, that she has followed ever since. “He spoke of the muscle memory of rendering the form,” she said. “Before making a mark, you would trace the movements to outline the figure, with just charcoal dust. When you started to draw, if you made a mistake, you wouldn’t erase it, because that would reinforce the muscle memory; instead, you should go over it with a new mark.” Gatto also taught her to imagine the feeling of the model maintaining the pose. “Like a woman with all her weight on one hip—when you’re drawing it, you should register that strain,” Quarles explained.
High school provided her with the foundation for a lifelong drawing practice. Even more important, it is where she met the woman who would become her wife: Alyssa Polk, who is now a screenwriter and producer. After high school, Quarles transferred from community college to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and double-majored in philosophy and studio arts. However, in addressing the issues of identity that preoccupy her, she found writing less effective than painting. “With visual ideas, you can have simultaneity and contradictory information, but the totality can unfold in the span of time of looking at it, and it can still come together as an image,” she said. “In writing, the span of time is more linear.” She shifted her focus back to art and earned a graduate degree in fine arts at Yale, in the same program that has produced notable Black figurative painters of her generation, including Jordan Casteel and Tschabalala Self. Those two artists, unlike Quarles, depict people who are clearly Black. “It wouldn’t be true to my experience to paint a dark-skinned body,” Quarles explained. “It’s not through skin pigmentation that I want to talk about race, but through showing how the figure is fluid and changeable, or how the planes that hold those figures in impossible situations and support them also slice and fragment them.”
Cuttings from a work in progress.
Quarles’s studio is packed with everything from dollar-store ephemera to repurposed tins.
Quarles likes to lift specific motifs or styles from other artists and tweak them—or, as she puts it, deliberately misquote them. Early David Hockney is a favorite: Rejiggered allusions to his patterned fabrics, naively articulated figures, and squiggles in swimming pools recur in her work. She also draws from popular culture, often taking lines of song lyrics as her titles. “She shows in these storied white-cube institutions, but the paintings pull from all these sources,” said Grace Deveney, currently an associate curator at Prospect New Orleans, who organized the MCA Chicago exhibition while she was working as an assistant curator there. “One of the paintings I love is called Underneath It All, which I think is a No Doubt lyric. In the back of her studio, she has this fruit chart, a thing you’d find in a dollar store. I find all her references continually surprising.” Using puns and misspellings, Quarles gives her paintings such titles as Laid Down Beside Yew, Bless tha Nightn’gale, and (Oh, I Fergot, It’s Summertime) Sunday, Ninth of July.
Her studio is a hodgepodge of serendipitously found treasures: fake fruit, pasted-up quotations, mugs shaped like pineapples. The poster that Deveney singled out is one of Quarles’s favorites: a three-dimensional illustration of different kinds of fruits that the artist bought for $2. Part of why she loves it is that the skins don’t match the interiors of the fruit. When I asked if that related to her racial fixation, she laughed. “It’s very true,” she said. “I would not be conscious of that, but maybe on some level I was.”
Grounded in a traditional drawing practice, she typically leaves large portions of her canvases unpainted. “At Yale, people would ask me why I did that, but with works on paper, no one would say anything,” she remarked. “It made me think that painting has these rules, and I could think of what happens when I deviate from them.” Portions of her pictures that overflow with information contrast with sections that have none at all. “The unpainted canvas became very charged,” she said. “It got me thinking about using the materiality of painting to bring up questions of what is invisible and what is neutral.”
Another push and pull that Quarles plays with is the opposition between a person’s desire to be understood as a complex individual and the yearning to find community by identifying with a group. “As soon as you see how problematic it is to have these definitive categories that don’t account for individual experiences, it becomes easier to question other categories that we have,” she said. “If you question race, how fundamental are gender or sexual-identity categories? I’ve always had a sense that there can be some degree of self-building, but there will always be limitations imposed by the world if you want to be part of a community.”
The appeal of Quarles’s work is that it explores these issues seductively. “I think her paintings are a gateway into thinking about identity in a way that is accessible,” Deveney said. “They are so beautiful and sumptuous, but they can lead to conversations that are essential and consequential.”
Quarles questions gender definitions that are based on ideal types. “I work with bodies that are all genders, including nonbinary and non-gender-conforming,” she said. “We think of gender with young, fit bodies; it’s interesting when we add age and body weight. If you look at a 90-year-old man, the gender gets confused. Or a 300-pound man, or a prepubescent boy. Because I work with all these kinds of models, I’m used to seeing gender complicated beyond the figure of a fit 25-year-old. And because there is fragmentation—what is the gender of a fat roll on a stomach, or an elbow?”
Her current exhibition includes an installation with three 12-foot-high walls, each six feet wide. Creating an immersive environment is another way she can probe the experience of living inside a body—in this case, not through the drawn depictions of her models, but by directing how a viewer interacts physically with her art. At a gallery show last fall at Pilar Corrias in London, she covered the front windows in orange vinyl. “I try to use the gallery space so the viewer will be aware of being in it,” she said. “It created an amber light that would give a sense of suspended time.”
That sensation of life at a standstill is something that Quarles, like most people, coped with during the pandemic lockdown. She and Polk had just moved into a new house on half an acre in Altadena, north of Pasadena, when they shut down in quarantine. At the beginning, she invited a group of about eight queer artists to meet for life drawing in her backyard. “We would take turns posing and being completely nude—but wearing masks,” she said. Eventually, however, she and her wife narrowed their social circle to just two other couples.
A worktable with paint cans in Quarles’s studio.
Alyssa Polk (left) and Quarles, photographed at their home in Altadena, California, in January 2021. Polk wears a 69 shirt, skirt, and socks; Collina Strada T-shirt; her own shoes. Quarles wears a Melitta Baumeister jacket; Vaquera oversize teddy; Falke socks; Dansko clogs; stylist’s own turtleneck.
Hair and makeup by Genevieve Garner using Kosas and Oribe; photo assistant: Justin Sariñana.
She had to postpone the planned construction of a new studio on the site of a horse barn and chicken coop, instead converting a garage into a small workspace. At the start of this year, she rented a storefront five minutes away so she could paint more than three canvases at a time. “I needed something to feel like it was a new year, and I thought maybe a new space would cheer me up,” she said. One reason she and Polk bought the house, which is near where Polk grew up, in northwest Pasadena, is that there was room to build a studio. They were also attracted to the garden, full of succulents and other drought-tolerant plants. The house and garage are painted an attractive brick red, and the sloping plot has a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains. “We moved into a house that reminds me of my paintings,” Quarles said. “There’s things like these crazy cypress trees and all these arches everywhere.”
The pandemic has curtailed and postponed Quarles’s exhibition schedule, but not affected her painting regimen. If anything, her output has increased. “Every aspect of my life has been changed in some ways, but my day-to-day activities are unchanged,” she said. And while her direct social encounters have shrunk in number, her ability to communicate is undiminished. At bottom, she believes, her explorations are universally relevant, because everyone is at least a little bit queer. “One of the things that I hope to get from making these paintings and putting them out in the world is encouraging people who have never had cause to question their identity to do that,” she said. “And maybe question everything else, too.”