STUDIO VISIT

In the Studio With Lauren Quin, the Painter Doing Abstraction Her Own Way

Photographed by Stephanie Noritz

Just a few days before Lauren Quin FaceTimes me from her new massive studio in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles, the artist had been appraising a 13-by-eight-foot painting she’d been working on. She realized it was not, as she feared, “too big,” but simply “museum scale”—as it should be. At 28, the rising painter could be fast on her way to becoming an institutional fixture.

Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art, for example, snapped up a work Quin painted earlier this year, and the list of galleries where Quin has shown so far in 2021 reads like a who’s-who of tastemakers. There were group shows at Downs and Ross in New York, and Blum & Poe and Smart Objects in L.A. And just as her solo exhibition at Loyal in Stockholm closes later this month, Quin opens her second solo show at Friends Indeed in San Francisco. Starting July 15, the gallery will display a series of paintings its cofounder, Micki Meng, considers Quin’s “most ambitious in scale, pattern, and technique yet.”

Quin, who grew up in Atlanta, attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and Yale School of Art. And yet, she insists that no one has ever taught her how to paint. “I always dodged intro classes,” she says. “The medium of paint, how it works chemically—I had to learn it the hard way.” The way she tells it, her most formal (and formative) instruction came from her father, who had no training. “He just worked in the basement, alongside me,” she recalls. It was there that he passed on the very basics, like how to hold a brush.

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At a certain point, while earning her MFA at Yale, Quin began to crave some of the structure she’d so studiously avoided. “So much of a program like that is about sort of breaking yourself down,” Quin, who graduated in 2019, recalls. A linear work by the Cubist painter Fernand Léger that she came across in the university’s collection stuck in her mind. “I looked at Léger’s paintings as antithetical to mine in the way that they were organized, and I wanted to make something with that organizational tool,” she says. Again determined to do things her own way, Quin settled on beginning her paintings with the form of a volumetric tube, which then became “a rule to bend—a rule to break.” The method ended up “unlocking” her work.

Tubes feature prominently in Quin’s most recent paintings. She starts out with a base layer of smaller cylinders in a pattern like a crosshatch, then adds large ones that look like tunnels, intestines, or Légerian limbs. She then repeats a line drawing—often of hands—over and over, adding gradients and inflating it past the point of recognition. (The hands in a recent work belong to the model Winnie Harlow, but by the time Quin is finished, the lines are so abstracted that you’d never be able to tell.) When enough layers build up, she repeats the drawing—this time by carving it, using everything from a set of mini medical spoons to an X-Acto knife. Then, once the paint dries, she flips the canvas over, suspending it just close enough to a pane of ink-covered glass for it to leave a mark when she presses the same drawing into it. (The final step is akin to a printing technique known as a trace monoprint.) “It’s a confusing process,” she says, laughing. “It’s a lot of layers.”

As the drawings multiply, they start to create a sort of rippling effect, making the oil paintings look digital—even printed. Quin likens this effect to a Moiré pattern—a sort of visual mirage created by the interference of two superimposed images, like the warping in a digital photo of a computer screen. “Once you see it, you'll see it everywhere,” Quin says. Moiré is also why Quin titled the show “Vocal Fry.” Humans have two vocal cords, and when they drop beyond the point of registry, they flap and flutter, producing a crackling noise. The phenomenon may sound familiar: “The tension between two patterns manifests a third.”

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Quin has come to love the term “vocal fry” since becoming “slightly an Angeleno”—something she still has trouble wrapping her head around. She moved to New York after graduating from SAIC, and spent a year riding her bike from Bushwick to the Upper East Side, where she worked at Franklin Parrasch Gallery. The opportunity to work with its West Coast partner gallery, Parrasch Heijnen, led to her first move to L.A., which was interrupted by her unexpected acceptance to both Skowhegan, where she did a summer residency in 2017, and Yale, which she attended several months later. She says her time at Skowhegan is in large part why her paintings are somewhat “spiritual”—at least by her own definition.

“I had never experienced pitch black as I did walking at night through the deep woods of Maine during my residency there,” she recalls by way of example. “Your sense of depth is completely removed. You have to turn your flashlight off, because the light attracts bugs, and just remember that you’re on a path. I kept feeling like things were flying at me and I was being pushed through a tube. That feeling carries over to my work, even now. I’m constantly trying to change the range of depth in my paintings; it’s like the painting falls off the edges, and I keep moving into the center. That’s how I know that a painting is finished—when I reach that point where you feel everything is flying at you and you’re just moving through it.”