Christina Quarles is at the forefront of a generation of millennial artists who are making ambiguity the aesthetic of our time. Few artists can incorporate as many painting styles as fluidly as Quarles does because few artists have the chops to paint and draw as well as she does. Even fewer have the philosophic rigor and intellectual muscle to upturn the cultural assumptions underlying the history of painting – and have such obvious pleasure doing it.
Since completing her graduate study at Yale in 2016 Quarles has been on the fast-track to artistic stardom. This year Quarles was the first recipient of the inaugural Perez Prize from Perez Art Museum Miami. She gained critical acclaim for her work in Made in L.A 2018 at Hammer Museum and the landmark Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at the New Museum in New York in 2017.
I spoke with Quarles after her tour de force exhibition, But I woke Jus Tha Same at Regen Projects. Quarles interest in ambiguity developed naturally from not fitting into any single racial identity, as the light skinned daughter of a black father and white mother. She is also a queer-identifying, cis-woman. These experiences of “being more than one thing”led to her understanding of ambiguity as an “excess that leads to illegibility.”Quarles says she aims to be “explicit about ambiguity” but laughs that this seems to be an oxymoron.
Her virtuosic painting raises questions that encourage people to continue questioning, rather than presenting any answers. Quarles presents identity as a performance rather than a fixed role and challenges our conventions, codes and genres of representing the self. Her work is visually and conceptually layered to combine multiple subjective perspectives that allow the viewer to entertain different possibilities, simultaneously.
LITA BARRIE: By raising questions about ambiguity you have created a new aesthetic out of ambiguity.
CHRISTINA QUARLES: Yes, in my development as an artist it was always at the forefront of my mind to engage with ambiguity. It’s an inevitable oxymoron, but I wanted to be explicit about the ambiguous.
BARRIE: This is partly because you are mixed race and queer-identifying, but are there other reasons?
QUARLES: I think that what led me into it was having a number of things about my own sense of who I was that didn’t easily fit into an easily legible way of identifying. Finding the limits of language and the limits of just what you look like — as ways of fully expressing the totality of contradictions and multiple inhabitants that you experience in daily life. I always like to remind people that this is something that certain identities are forced to confront more often than others. For me, my race is being somebody born to a white mom and black dad and having very light skin but having whiteness is something that doesn’t really accept a spectrum of whiteness. feeling more affinities with my black heritage but inhabiting this body that is very light skinned and passes as white. Having this complicated relationship from a very early age clued me into a larger possibility that identity is more complicated than maybe it first appears to be.
BARRIE: It is interesting that we don’t consider variations of whiteness but we do of blackness.
QUARLES: It’s a large part of how whiteness maintains power by being designated as being either a pure racial qualifier or one blank slate upon which attributes of race are applied.
BARRIE: So whiteness, like maleness, becomes neutral and everything else becomes a deviation.
QUARLES: Exactly, and heterosexuality, western culture and dominant western religions. Whoever is in a position of privilege can assume neutrality upon which signifiers are applied. So in my work I’m very interested in issues very relevant to my life but even a heterosexual white, Christian, middle class man has potential to occupy a position of ambiguity. My works are informed by my experiences but they aren’t solely queer experiences.
BARRIE: Do you think about queering of art?
QUARLES: I do think of it existing in that space but art has a unique way of being able to position people in a conversation they wouldn’t think it was their’s to have. I use beauty a lot and the familiarity of certain tropes of painting, as a way to enter work that is available to a lot of different people and have a conversation about this ambiguous state that is not only a person of color’s place to occupy. Ambiguity is a way of breaking down power structures by opening them up to the state that other identities are forced to occupy all the time.
BARRIE: How did you develop an aesthetic that expresses ambiguity?
QUARLES: It came from thinking about an explicit idea of the ambiguous that is not vague. Something vague is illegible because we lack information about it. So ambiguity is at the other end of the spectrum of legibility.
BARRIE: So ambiguity involves being two or more things at once?
QUARLES: It is an excess. I relate to my racial identity as excess because I have black relatives and white relatives — not mixed race relatives. I began thinking about ambiguity as being more than one thing existing simultaneously and having contradictions that create questions about legibility or stability that helped me latch onto a visual language. I use different modes of representation for making a figure, and different art historical references, and types of marks that comes from this place of thinking about excess which comes with ambiguity.
BARRIE: So you had a real purpose for your exploration and then finding an aesthetic for it meant nothing is ever gratuitous in your work. Even your use of decoration is never facile because everything has both a conceptual and aesthetic purpose in your composition.
QUARLES: Yes, that is the goal. It is an interesting process to have arrived at because in grad school I found it difficult at first because I would make drawings on canvas and fill them in with paint -and they just sucked. I made a step forward when one professor told me to draw with the brush. I did it and that opened me up to possibilities using my strength in gestural line. But using tools of painting to have that line be anything from a more traditional looking drawn line, to a very thick line, or line drawn which has little brush strokes going through it. It opened me up to using my skill set as someone who knew how to draw a gestural line. Drawing with paint and a painting tool I could really expand the scale and depth of my work.
BARRIE: Heidi Hahn who also came out of Yale draws with the brush, too.
QUARLES: Actually, we also came out of the same high school only two years apart, so we really have the same training.
BARRIE: A unique feature of your work is the way the limbs go right to the edge of the canvas and sometimes it feels as though the figures want to crawl out of the frame. You create a central space enclosed within the limbs which is an intimate space and the limbs circle around like branches. Why?
QUARLES: I’m very interested in using the motifs of the edge and boundaries whether it is the boundary of the contour line to describe something, or playing with the edge of the frame of the canvas. I find them to be really helpful limits and like both acknowledging them as being constructive limits, but also being very real definitions of what is being presented, and the push and pull of that way of thinking through limits of being in a physical body.
BARRIE: Are you using the visual metaphor of going to the edge, to question cultural limitations?
QUARLES: Many times the figures are confined, or contorted, or restrained by the boundary of the canvas. But it is also a way of being self-aware and self-activated by knowing the limits.
BARRIE: Why do some limbs look like branches and some body parts look like flowers?
QUARLES: I paint in flowers and branches to create moments when body parts echo other body parts or environments they are in.
BARRIE: Your beauty is sometimes almost dangerous beauty. Are you also interested in the abject?
QUARLES: I don’t shy away from beauty or enjoying color. Sometimes I feel sad so I add a bouquet of flowers. Beauty can be used to bring people in, but it can also be used as a refuge for people who have this conversation all the time and need a way to rest in the work as well. Sometimes when people want to talk about heavy issues, or allegory, or metaphor, it can be difficult and painful for other people who have to go through that on a daily basis. I try to create things from the opposite standpoint by thinking about a respite. Moments of intimacy occupy everything from pleasurable intimate moments like love, or sex, or the intimacy between a mother and child. But then intimacy also occurs in moments of violence, or sickness, or death. Abject is a form of intimacy.
BARRIE: How do you begin a painting and then combine technology?
QUARLES: I don’t go into them with a pre-conceived idea of what I’m going to paint. I know there will probably be a figure, and pattern, and plane. I still take figure drawing classes and draw from models. Once I approach a canvas I let that go to the back of my mind. I start off pretty abstractly with abstract brushstrokes and try to stop myself from completing the form, or line, and take a step back and look at the work, and challenge myself to make corrections that are not necessarily what I would have done if I had continued the line. I spend a lot of time looking at form and bringing shapes out from a place of abstraction. All that part is largely just figures on raw canvas and I still paint in a very fragmented way. Then I photograph the figures, and canvas, and bring it into illustrator, and play around with different potential planes, and flowers, and all the environs they exist within. That gets worked out on the computer and it allows me a freedom to play around with different possibilities for the planes but still allows me to have a great deal of raw canvas.
BARRIE: How has technology opened up new possibilities for painters?
QUARLES: I find it to be an interesting tool and it is still a place I will leave open for observation and things unexpected to happen. For instance, sometimes I base draw on illustrator, like a quick sketch for one flower with a digital brush stroke very sloppily done. But I like the sloppiness of the digital mark so I mimic it exactly with thicker paint – not airbrush – so I still have a very tactile application, but it is a digital gesture. I use the computer as a playful tool.
BARRIE: Do you mask off areas where you use impasto or patterning?
QUARLES: Yes, I do. Figures are almost always done first then backgrounds, and planes, and effects done behind figures come on last. Figures are masked out so thicker layers of paint can happen then. I like the opticality that it is something in the background but the physicality of the light wash of the figure having raw canvas showing through suddenly flips what is at front and what is at back.
BARRIE: Why do you use windows to suggest an external world apart from the intimacy of the figures?
QUARLES: I go back and forth between seeing them as windows and planes of sky which don’t really exist in the real world. I try to look for patterns like the windows, and the sky moments fusing these visual puns that locate figure and two faces at once. I do look for things that locate them in both an interior and exterior world. I use the flower pattern a lot in my work and see that as being something that can reference a field of flowers. Sometimes it is liquid like lilies on a lake but also like a floral bedspread or table cloth. So it has both a manufactured connotation but also one in nature. It is a way of multiply situating the bodies.
BARRIE: Do you have a color philosophy?
QUARLES: I had color training at grad level. When I am making these figures I see them existing entirely within the world of paint. So I want their flesh to describe a sort of heaviness, or skinniness, or uncomfortableness, or relaxation — all these feelings of flesh without referencing white skin or brown skin. So I work with a gray color I’ve mixed to be a middle color between canvas and a black I’ve mixed. Again, coming from drawing it is like working with the tonality of charcoal but using paint and canvas. The crazier violets, oranges and colors give off a sense of mood but don’t reveal a specific race.
BARRIE: Today is a Renaissance for black artists and queer-identifying artists. So in many ways you are ideally situated in time and place to rewrite the script.
QUARLES: Yes. But there are also two ways you can go. I’m very out of one way: which is very prominent authors not being given a platform.
BARRIE: As a millennial artist, born after 1980, how are you influenced by the different ways an image can function today less as a depiction and more as an interface for different cultural factors on internet platforms like IG?
QUARLES: So much of my work is about the physicality of paint and the graphic sense of image can overshadow that, if people only see it on the internet. But access to imagery is so much more varied now because I’m constantly scrolling on my phone and taking screenshots from IG, seeing something interesting someone painted, which I’ll turn into a pattern. I think the references coming from these very strange curated motifs based on IG and the internet have created an access to a digital way of drawing that certainly has not existed for long.
BARRIE: Why do you think a new figuration, which combines abstraction, is of such interest today?
QUARLES: The interest right now is in people who have not been authors of their own stories in the past. People painting their own community, rather than it always being straight-white-men painting whoever they felt like painting. Authors not given platform to tell their own story are advocating for an ambiguous portraiture that is not stable and fixed.
BARRIE: How did you become interested in combining written language with visuals?
QUARLES: I used to put language directly into paintings but I found there was too much desire to connect imagery with language and have it as a descriptive for imagery. I think language is interesting like a trompe l’oeil because it is also a stand-in for something it isn’t at all. Take a word like “tree” and a different image comes up in anyone else’s mind. So it exists in a public and private place. I love the way language can have puns, double meanings, and I often reference pop music, TV, high-end theory and poetry. The same sort of visual patchwork that happens in paintings with language, is based on quoting and misquoting.
BARRIE: We live in a sampling culture. Are you also sampling different painting styles, genres, motifs?
QUARLES: It could be that, too. Patterns function like text and can be a misquote or sample. They can be specific enough to have a reference but open-ended enough for you to complete it in your own mind. We still have a need to connect, and slow down, and look at one thing which art does allow us to do. It is one time you are really not allowed to have your phone out. It is a time to disconnect from your phone and observe what is in front of you.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie’s writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles, including Hyperallergic, HuffPost, art ltd, Artweek, and Art New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read more of her work, visit www.litabarrie.com