Christina Quarles Exhibition Tour

Curatorial Assistant Jack Schneider leads a tour of the exhibition "Christina Quarles," the largest presentation of the artist’s work to date.

[MUSIC PLAYING] - Hi. I’m Jack Schneider, Curatorial Assistant here at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Today, I’m going to show you the exhibition of Christina Quarles, organized by guest curator, Grace Deveney and myself. This is the largest presentation of Quarles’ work to date. And it includes paintings, drawings, and a large-scale installation made over the last four years.

Quarles is a Los Angeles-based artist who paints familiar scenes in unfamiliar ways. She paints figures that crouch, stretch, and tangle. The bodies in her paintings often merge with others. Sometimes they begin to fragment and even dissolve into the environments they occupy.

Quarles explores touching intimacy, representation and abstraction, and ambiguity and identity. Her paintings are deliberately ambiguous. There is no fixed definition or interpretation. As we take a look at some of the works in the exhibition, keep in mind that what you will see will likely differ from what another person does.

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Entering into the exhibition’s first gallery, we see Quarles depicting single figures in her paintings. As we move into the next gallery, we see how Quarles begins to paint pairs. By the time we reach the final gallery, she’s depicting groups of entangled bodies. You’ll notice that as these groupings get more complex, the paintings grow larger in scale, while the size of the figures remains relatively consistent.

It’s possible to see Quarles’ own experience of identity in her paintings. For her, identity is more complex than the categories or terms that we use to define it. For example, rather than using terms like biracial or mixed race, she describes herself as multiply situated, which is a more nuanced way of describing her experience. In her words, she says that fixed categories of identity can be used to marginalize, but paradoxically, can be used by the marginalized to gain visibility and political power.

Quarles is constantly switching between representation and abstraction, leaving the race, gender, sexuality, and age of the figure she depicts intentionally ambiguous. Just like Quarles’ paintings, our identities defy easy analysis or categorization.

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This work is called "Underneath It All", and Quarles created it through a painting experiment. She built up many layers of blue acrylic paint to create the rectangle at the center, then she decided to peel away the build up. What you see on the Canvas is the residue of what was left behind, which evokes both the haze of Los Angeles smog and the way light reflects off the outlines of mountains on the city’s outskirts.

The painting’s title is borrowed from the No Doubt song, "Underneath It All", and Quarles is using it as a double entendre. She’s speaking to both the blue paint that she’s peeled away, but also to what’s happening with the figure, who appears to be pinned down by the way to the sky, cut into almost like a guillotine, as Quarles describes it.

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In this work, it’s possible to see the influence of another painter, David Hockney. Quarles was working on this painting on July 9 in 2017, when she took a break to go swimming in a friend’s pool. She looked up and saw a plane skywriting that read, "Happy birthday David Hockney." The painter’s birthday makes an appearance in the artwork’s title, "(Oh, I fergot It’s Summertime) Sunday 9 of July," 2017.

And Hockney’s influence is also evident in the way that Quarles painted the pool, as two pattern plains of color. The painting also shows the ambiguity that is a hallmark of Quarles’ work. A standing figure tenderly makes contact with another in the spa scene, that at once separate and interrelated. The relationship seems to convey an emotional experience, filled with both intimacy and distance, pleasure and discomfort.

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Quarles often takes inspiration from her life and her city when conjuring her dreamlike scenes, including, as she puts it, "The sprawl, the driving, the ugly bits of architecture of LA." In this painting, just as in "Underneath It All", a hazy blue atmosphere hints at the city’s notoriously smoggy skies. A stone clad barrier, inspired by a wall that Quarles used to pass every day while driving to her studio, serves as the backdrop for this scene that’s filled with tension. The central figure leans in to embrace another on right. But below, a third figure is being crushed underfoot.

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We’re caught between the pleasure and oppressiveness of this complex social interaction.

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This painting is called, "Oh Dear, Look Whut We’ve Dun to tha Blues". It is a dense complex series of layers. It’s difficult to discern what is background and what is foreground. The boundaries between bodies, objects, and environment have broken down. The figures are painted with differing techniques, with the gray shapes suggesting muscle. Alongside decorative patterns, implying platforms.

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It’s an uneasy painting, and intentionally so. Quarles was making this painting in the spring of 2020, when she describes feeling deep discomfort about the state of the world and the injustices all around her. In her own words, "I was feeling rising anxiety all around me. This sense that we were going through all the motions of business as usual amid a spreading virus. This doom bubbling just below the veneer of a calm, often decadent facade, is the one I have also felt with regard to the urgency of issues like global warming, racial injustice, and class inequality, to name a few."

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While this exhibition mainly features Quarles’ paintings, this section of the show is dedicated to her drawings. These works often put text and imagery in conversation. Like so many of Quarles’ artwork titles, they often include wordplay that adds meaning, and sometimes uncertainty.

This work, titled "Oh Yeah, But", references a Blink-182 song called "All The Small Things." Look closely and you’ll see multiple forms of wordplay, like truth be told. You’ll also see Quarles poking fun at herself. She points out a mistake that she’s made in the lower-left corner of the drawing with the words, "wrong way, you had one job".

In this drawing, titled "Oh Dear", the figure is tangled up with the objects and in the environment that surrounds them. The boundaries between where the figure ends and the scene begins aren’t clear. The figure’s head is rendered multiple times in a downward tilt that suggests a pose of mourning or even defeat. Meanwhile, the figure shadow has come to life, wrapping its ghostly limbs over the legs of the figure and glaring at them from between their feet.

Like so much of Quarles’ work we’re touching on today, there is tension between the emotions at play in the drawing. Despite the animated shadow and downtrodden tone of the piece, an ocean sunset presents a glimmer of hope.

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Finally, in the center of the last gallery, we see a painting called "Never Believe It’s Not So. Never Believe It’s Not So". Just as the title suggests, illusions are at play here. At first glance, it looks like a wall covered in red striped wallpaper with paintings hanging on it. But it’s not that straightforward. The limbs of the figures seem to spill out of their neat frames.

Quarles achieved this playful, unexpected effect using a traditional type of painting called trompe-l’oeil, which uses light and shadow to trick the viewer into believing that the content of the painting extends into three dimensional space. Using this technique, she challenges us to explore our own perceptions of illusion versus reality, both in this painting, and by extension, in the world at large.

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Quarles’ paintings may look otherworldly. But at the same time, there is truth in the way that she paints bodies. Entangled with each other and with the world around them, informed by her own experience of living in a racialized, queer, and gendered body, she paints figures in ways that challenge easy representation. In other words, rather than painting bodies, Quarles paints the experience of having a body. By challenging us to interpret these complex scenes, she reminds us that our own experiences of the world and of our own identities and bodies are deeply and beautifully unique.

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