Art In Conversation
Christina Quarles with Lee Ann Norman
“You have what you project out into the world, and theres always gonna be some sort of resistance.”
New YorkHauser & Wirth
Christina Quarles: In 24 Days tha Sun’ll set at 7pm
September 8 – October 29, 2022
Christina Quarles’s work revels in spaces filled with sensuous ambiguity and disorienting complexity. She complicates the figure through abstract gestures and patterns, forcing a longer look when reading her visual language. For Quarles, identity is three-dimensional, comprising what is seen, heard, and felt. Often in her paintings a mess of limbs, torsos, breasts, and buttocks meld and morph into and around each other, resulting in the feeling of stumbling upon someone’s private moments. Growing up as a multi-racial person, Quarles often struggled to reconcile her racial self-identity with the assumptions about her race that people imposed on her, an experience that she has also felt when people learned that she is queer. I found Quarles’s thinking about feeling as part of identity-formation fascinating, so I asked if we could talk more in depth about parts of her origin stories and how those experiences manifest in her work.
Lee Ann Norman (Rail): You are really specific when you talk about who you are, and you’ve said people would imply things like, you don’t look like they think you should look. Did you grow up around the Black side of your family and the white side of your family? Was that frustration about an external disconnect or something within your family?
Christina Quarles: I grew up more with my mom’s side of the family—my mom is white. And I definitely had a more complicated relationship with my father, but I’ve had a closer relationship with his mother (my nana), and with his sister (my aunt). I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t in a racially homogenous environment. My babysitters growing up were Trinidadian, I’m a quarter Trinidadian. But I feel like really for me, it’s always been this sort of disconnect between being raised in a way that I was like: okay, so I guess that means that I’m half Black and half white, but then for that to be immediately met with a confused reaction or with opposition as a kid was confusing.
For me, it was honestly answering a question about how I perceive myself. I think that conflict is about what it means when how you internalize your own sense of self is met with resistance from everybody else. It’s something that I continue to think about. The terms of my identity are always shifting and changing, just as the cultural context also shifts and changes. I don’t think of identity as a static position, but I continue to feel like language is always a bit insufficient for describing the experience.
Rail: I think, at different points in our lives or in different situations, one aspect of our identity can be more prominent for us, even though identity can feel fixed.
Quarles: I always struggle with the fact that I’m not seen as Black usually, especially by white people, because so much of being Black in America is being Black to white people. I feel like I have to be very forthcoming in that I recognize that in many ways, my experience is not a Black experience, and I want to be respectful of not occupying spaces that need to be carved out for that continued daily experience. On the other hand, when I am around white people, I’m always kind of shocked at their ability to move through the world without constantly thinking about race. In that sense, I do feel like I’ve lived an experience of being in a racialized body—not to say that whiteness is not a racialized body, it’s just one that’s less internalized by white people.
But there is this internal knowledge of code switching and how I choose to present myself or how I choose to fill out a form at the doctor’s office and all these things where I’m constantly being reminded of just how my body moves through different spaces in different contexts. And then the parallels with that of me being gay, it’s always this coming out process, like: do I need to tell everyone my full bio, or am I just getting a cup of coffee? [Laughs]
Rail: The doctor’s office is such an important example. You will receive different care or different kinds of tests or whatever, depending on how you identify. It’s wild.
Quarles: Yeah, I guess that’s why I think of identity as this launching pad for the work that I make. It’s made me aware that regardless of what body you inhabit or what sort of intersections you have in your own particular set of identities, you have the potential to think about these things; it’s just certain people have to think about them more than others.
Rail: So much of life in the United States is about binaries, like: you’re this or that (usually Black or white), and people have a hard time understanding the stuff in between. When I look at your work, I feel like I have to linger with the paintings. There’s a lot of intimacy in the work, and the figures are often intertwined or overlapping. Your figures aren’t necessarily in that binary either; they’re in the middle space. Could you talk a little bit about the intimacy of your figures and their resistance to binaries?
Quarles: I do find that there is in my work a slower read, and information is revealed the longer you look at the paintings. I mean, I love working with the figure, because I’ve done figure drawing since I was a little kid. I’m actually in the English countryside randomly and there’s a figure drawing class here that I take—I’ve always loved working with live models. But when I make the paintings, I’m not working with live models at all. I’m just working from memory. I find the figures really interesting because we’re so drawn into trying to make patterns and even the human form out of abstraction. Like you can turn a light socket into a face, you know? [Laughs] We’re so conditioned to want to see legible information. You have to see things quickly if you are trying to get out of a dangerous situation. A quicker read with my paintings could be like, "Oh, it’s like, women having sex," because there’s boobs and butts and bodies sort of touching and intertwining. But I do find that the actual visual information that I present in the paintings doesn’t necessarily mean that there is some exact narrative conclusion. Oftentimes, there’s way more limbs than there are torsos, for example. The way that I think about figures is much more fragmented, like the way that the painting style will shift throughout a figure in one of my paintings.
I think of intimacy as really being fully within your body and exceeding interactions where we do feel the need to hook into the binary or have these highly legible moments. And that legibility can start to become more complicated. As soon as you add age, or adolescence, frailty or fat to the figure, gender does get confusing. Somebody who identifies as male but is 280 pounds is gonna have a bit of a chest, or an older woman can have a narrow ribcage and hips. I don’t fault people for having an immediate read of femininity in the work, because I think people do read the artist into the work, and I do identify as a woman. I don’t think of intimacy as necessarily just having sex with somebody. Sex can be intimate, but it can also super not be.
I always remind people about moments of violence, sickness, or hunger, or childbirth—all of these moments are intimate. They share this idea of existing beyond the flattened sense of self that you try to project into the world. They make you realize you are just this complicated, contradictory person. Moments of intimacy can happen in front of another person or with another person or group of people, but intimacy can happen in isolation as well. And so sometimes in the paintings, I do see the figures as being multiple, individual figures. And then other times I see it as fewer figures, or even a single figure kind of moving through the time and space of the canvas itself.
Rail: Yeah, sure: nude bodies equal sex for a lot of people, but intimacy is so much more than that. Just letting somebody into your physical space, being close to someone, also involves a lot of vulnerability, whether you are fully dressed or not.
Quarles: Yeah. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of nude bodies, but there’s also patterns applied to the bodies as well, usually Harlequin or checker patterns. The figure wearing jeans is one of the motifs I return to; that’s about how you feel in your own body. I’m much more about what you feel like within your body, rather than what it is to look at another body.
Rail: You’ve been drawing figures for a long time. You were in a lot of art classes when you were a kid. Who are some of your influences that helped you evolve the visual language for your work?
Quarles: I really had kind of a random assortment of influences when I was younger. I went to an arts high school where I had really intensive technical training in painting and drawing. Then I studied philosophy and went to a liberal arts college. And then I worked as a graphic designer for many years, then did film and television stuff before I went back to painting. As a kid, I was always influenced by the sort of standard artists that little kids are shown when they’re interested in painting like Gustav Klimt and Frida Kahlo, which I kind of take for granted. Now when I re-examine those works, I’m like, actually, they’re amazing—
Rail: —Instead of cliche.
Quarles: Right. Being in Los Angeles, David Hockney is somebody whose work I would see at the LA County Museum of Art. I was also really influenced by my mom; she and I would go to thrift stores all the time when I was a kid, which is something that I continued to do up until the pandemic, being inspired by the patterns that I would see. The thrift stores and the 99 cent store were my two favorite places to go shopping.
Rail: What did you like about them?
Quarles: I just love the way that things I would see in Vogue would get disseminated and turned into this weird kitschy object at the 99 cent store, or, like, in some Mexican oil cloth in downtown LA. I was also really inspired by my cousin’s MAD magazine collection, but even in that, there’s this use of visual shorthand and punning that happens. I’m always kind of pulling inspiration from poetry, music, or prose. Those are also things that I have stuck in my head when I make a painting, and then it works its way into the title.
The honest answer for me is that I really am influenced by things outside of the museum. But then I also love the fact that painting is such a technical process. You’re constantly thinking about color theory and materiality, and what actually gives a figure weight and space and perspective. All of these technical things get combined with everything I’ve seen throughout the day. I do find museums to be incredible spaces, but I’m probably more influenced by the walk I took in the morning than by the last museum show that I saw.
Rail: Yeah, I’m thinking about Alex Coles’s The Transdisciplinary Studio that talks about the artist’s studio as a system, so everybody who comes in, all the materials that pass through it, etc., influence what the artistic output is.
The way that you make paintings—starting from gestural drawing then switching to Adobe Illustrator to make the backgrounds and painting on top of that—is also interesting. Some critics and historians are preoccupied with being able to see the presence of the artist’s hand in the work, but I feel like Illustrator is just a different tool in the hand of the artist, like a paintbrush or a pencil. What do you think about this kind of binary: “hand” versus “machine”?
Quarles: I think we tend to think of computers as not being in dialogue with the materiality because it’s digital, but I actually find it to be a very similar process to painting. Recently I’ve been really thinking a lot about the use of Illustrator in my work, because so much of my process is an extension of my physical body. Even as I change the size of the canvases, the size of the figures stay more or less the same because the figures are related to the gesture I make, usually the range of motion in my shoulder. Because I don’t like working on ladders, and I don’t work with assistants, I’m really limited to my wingspan.
One of the things I find really fascinating about Adobe Illustrator is that its whole function is to be infinitely scalable. If something is in Photoshop, it’s going to be restricted to a bitmap, so at some point, you’ll lose resolution. But with Illustrator, because it’s vector-based, you can make something infinitely large and infinitely small and the resolution will not be changed. I’m always drawing in Illustrator with the trackpad on my laptop, so it now becomes like a finger scale, but it can be blown up to be huge. For me, using Illustrator is a way of divorcing the sense of scale from my own physical body.
Rail: What prompted you to want to divorce that sense of scale from your physical body in this way?
Quarles: I think the last several years have created this strange disconnect between physical and digital, our daily reality. Then there’s the chaos of everything that’s happening every few days in the news. It can be so overwhelming. You can turn off your phone and turn off the news, look around and be like: okay, in this literal moment, I’m safe and fine. But if I open up my phone, it feels like the end of the world. This sort of psychic divide has really intensified throughout the pandemic. All the news that’s been happening alongside and from the pandemic has really made me think about the digital and physical nature of my work through the scale of gesture.
That’s why, for me, it’s really important to not work with assistants and to keep things in my own scope of capabilities. If I’m tired and make a mistake, or have a drip of paint come down because I didn’t fully mask an area properly, that will be something that through observation ends up being this interesting compositional element of the work. I think that is sort of what it is like, also, to inhabit a body and to be in the world. You have what you project out into the world, and then there’s always gonna be some sort of resistance. Maybe it’ll be like me on the playground as a kid meeting full resistance about my racial identity, or maybe it’ll just be you telling a joke and nobody laughs. There are all these moments throughout the day when what you intend to do is met with something happening that you didn’t expect. And maybe from that, you create a new set of intentions, and there’s a new reality, and it just keeps building into this third thing that’s like living a life, I guess.
Rail: You’ve brought it full circle, back to being embodied. [Laughs] I really understand how the way you work and your process makes the work so personal and intimate. It’s nearly impossible not to feel the presence of the body within it. What’s coming up for you in the next six months here?
Quarles: Well I’m doing work right now in England for my first solo show in New York, at Hauser & Wirth,which I’m very excited about. It’s also the first body of work I’ve made since having a baby. My wife and I have an eight month old, and my wife was the one who carried the baby. It’s a weird moment when I am a mom, of course, but I don’t have to go through any of the postpartum or any of the physical things that you have to do when you carry a child. I feel like I’m always just inhabiting multiple worlds at once.
I do also want to say that I appreciate you asking at the beginning of this conversation to probe deeper into things I’ve said in previous interviews. I tried, in undergrad, to write my thesis work about trying to use language to describe racial identity, because I always felt like calling myself “mixed race” was insufficient. I didn’t feel like I was a mix. I felt like I was firmly rooted in these two very different identities that oftentimes don’t have any interaction, yet contradict and undermine one another.
Rail: I often think about if there are other ways of expanding language or if we can make new meaning. And how would we do that? In other languages, there are multiple ways to talk about a color, for example, while in English we just have, like: brown, light brown, dark brown. [Laughs] I still think it’s a rich and amazing language, but I’m glad there are people in this moment who are working to push those boundaries and expand meaning.
Quarles: Nothing against language. I mean, I actually love language. I used to put language directly in my paintings, but I found that I had to take it out, because people do hold language in high regard. They would see the language in my painting and see that as an explanation for the visual imagery. I replaced it with patterns because I find patterns are very similar to language in that they also have authority and are aesthetically very flat, just like how words are very two-dimensional.
I think like with anything, we tend to fall into a simplistic way of speaking or seeing or interacting just because there is this desire to be understood and to have the way we see ourselves be met with how we are seen by other people. I think that desire is so strong because experiencing that disconnect can be so alienating and so painful. But I go back and forth on that so much, like: sometimes I wish this was simpler. I wish there was a simpler way to do the wall text. [Laughs] Then I think: but maybe it’s great that it’s not simpler because maybe the whole point is to live in that uncertainty and discomfort.