Witnessed in the flesh, Christina Quarles' candy-coloured paintings of shape-shifting figures offer an especially visceral experience. Aspiring less to a mirror image than a surge of unfolding form, Quarles' bodies give the feeling you are inhabiting them instead of merely observing them from the outside.
The last time Ocula Magazine spoke to Quarles, the L.A.-based artist was in the midst of her major London institutional debut at South London Gallery in 2021.
Now she's back in the capital with Tripping Over My Joy (10 October–16 December 2023) inaugurating Pilar Corrias' new flagship Mayfair location with a display of seven new paintings and nine works on paper. The exhibition coincides with Frieze London.
Ocula Advisory sits down with Quarles to discuss her upbringing in L.A., the importance of colour theory, and the recurring themes of transparency and concealment in her latest body of work.
You grew up in L.A. and still live and work there today. How has the city shaped your practice?
While my compositions aren't predetermined, the L.A. scenery, the sky, and the light usually find their way into my palette. I'm inspired by the place and the season in which I'm working. For example, in my recent work Too Hot To Hoot (2023), swimming pools and tiling create context for my figures.
My family moved west to be in the film and television industry, and the landscape continues to influence my work. There's this particular combination in L.A., of watered lawns, the flora, and fabricated sets, alongside real buildings. There's this mishmash of different eras of architecture—Tudor, next to Spanish, next to colonial houses—with multitudes of cultures consuming large sections of the city, like Koreatown where I grew up and went to elementary school.
I lived in an apartment not far from LACMA and saw a lot of David Hockney's work growing up. He's someone who I've referenced very literally at times. He's an iconic L.A. artist, who has similarly depicted the landscape, swimming pools, backyards, and other domestic motifs that I remain fascinated by, and that show up in my work.
The bodies you paint appear in a state of flux, from fragmentation to unfolding, dissolving to evolving. What first drew you to the figurative?
I studied Philosophy during my undergraduate degree and wrote my thesis about critical race theory. I used my biography as someone who grew up with a Black father and white mother but is often seen as white, as a sort of frame of reference for the experience of possessing alternate selves within shifting social contexts.
The figures in my work articulate the experience of living within a body, rather than the experience of looking at one. Bodies are occupied by space and patterns in my paintings, collapsing and expanding as they run into shifting contexts.
Because we are regularly defined by context, perception remains central to the language of my art. The multilayered application I use in my practice also deals with this reality—that there's a certain depth and complexity within the self (or within the work itself) that takes time and effort to unpack.
Your use of colour is mesmerising. Could you tell me about the way you work with and select your colour palette?
Colour theory was an important part of my post-graduate education, and remains important to the ideas I try to express in my work. I use colour figuratively, to cue the mood.
Colour can be an access point; a way of drawing viewers into an aesthetic reality, but then, the real understanding comes from sustained looking. Viewers need to take in the layers of information and the complexity I try to build into my compositions.
I don't use human skin colours in my work, or use colour to articulate race. My paintings are more about an internal experience of identity.
At the same time, there's a similarity between thinking critically about race and colour. It's about challenging one's initial perception of something that seems stable but isn't. Both of these thought processes manifest a larger structure for thinking about something that requires close inspection.
I like to play with both relational and local colour in my works, which lends to my exploration of instances in which meaning is influenced both by context and stereotype.
I read that you photograph your paintings and digitally add to them, eventually painting the manipulated image back onto the canvas. Could you talk me through what inspired this kind of process in your work?
There is always a back-and-forth between my intention and what is actually in front of me in my work. Because I am not working from sketches, the painting is not trying to be anything other than what it becomes. I am informed by both my intended marks and those that occur, like drips or bleeds.
Eventually, the figures take shape and I'll photograph my work and bring it into Adobe Illustrator to work out the patterns and planes. Though it is digital, there is still the same interaction between intention and accident.
Often, an unintended glitch in my digital drawing will lead to a new direction for the composition. It's just another way of looking and thinking through the composition, a way of stepping back and also zooming in, in terms of the infinite scalability of Adobe Illustrator.
Tell me about the new series of works on view in your exhibition, Tripping Over My Joy.
The new body of work plays a lot with transparency, concealing, and revealing information, alongside a lot of obstacles or visual noise. The idea of transparency, or glass deals a little bit with fragility and vulnerability. These feelings influence the conceptual side of practice, but aren't always articulated in a material sense.
I'm also reconsidering the container in these works. I've been experimenting with this tilted surface plane, like in Burden of Yer Own Making (2023), while also bringing my background into the foregrounded plane, as in works like I Think It's Gunna Be A Long Long Time (2023).
These recurring motifs relate to another one of my ideas: that of a substance, which is visually dependent on its context, but also one that manipulates the clarity of that larger context. The painted planes interact with the three-dimensional plane of the canvas, with the figures relying on both structures, and both structures relying on one another.
There can be no painted plane without the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, and the canvas would obviously lack dimensionality without this painted architectural feature.
In the end, the figures are butting up against both of these limits. In my work, I'm negotiating the limits of my abilities and the unpredictability of the outcomes of my decisions.
It's about painting myself into a corner, and then painting my way through to the other side. Transparency and playing with the framework of the canvas provide new ways of exploring these ideas.
I'm also interested in the relationship between scale and time. Certainly, the varying scales in my work impact the time it takes for me to think through a piece and get to the other side, but I'm also trying to create movement in the static image.
As a painter, I want to create an active experience for viewers, one that may encourage a shift in perspective. The experience of the total composition may have one sense—of the time of day, or a narrative concluding—but as you physically move closer to the painting, or experience a longer, sustained period of looking, the sense of time can change.
In these works, I've tried to achieve this sense of perpetual motion, as well as an experience that spans and maybe even suspends time.
On the topic of colour theory, I've played with vibrating boundaries in this show, considering the value, hue, and saturation of wall colour, as much as the colours in my work.
Since this will be the first show at Pilar Corrias' new gallery, I wanted to play with a new set of spatial parameters, primarily through colour, rather than architecturally intervening with a space that is already brand new.
What's next for you?
This will be my fourth solo exhibition in the last 12 months. While I'm grateful and gratified by the last year, and these last five years for that matter, I've been running a marathon. It'll be critical for me to recharge, spend time with my family, and work in the studio, at least for a few months, to get back to that place of experimentation.
That said, I do have a solo show opening at GL Strand in Copenhagen next summer.
Main image: Christina Quarles, Here We Come Again (2023) (detail). Acrylic on canvas. 195.6 x 244.2 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy the artist, Pilar Corrias, London, and Hauser & Wirth, London/New York/Los Angeles/West Hollywood.