Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photo: Erik Carter.
Christina Quarles is known for paintings that spill in every sense, with demarcations between canvas, bodies, and assignations to the latter via race, gender, and other sociogenic markers collapsing and expanding towards new forms of embodiment.
In doing so, Quarles explores the universal experience of being within a body, emphasising the gesturality of painting and porosity of the drawn line to disrupt systems of reading. Her paintings are known for their opaque stratification, often leaving viewers to determine what is being depicted and what overdetermination is present.
Through installations such as Never Believe It's Not So (Never Believe/ It's Not So) (2019), now on view in her solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (13 March–5 September 2021), Quarles invites viewers' bodies to be implicated in the viewing experience. Created as a modular installation, bodies are layered across a pink and white striped background, with sections of text running vertically along it, requiring, as is typical of Quarles's works, audiences to tilt their heads in order to read it.
Works like Feel'd (2018) exemplify Quarles's emphasis on play even at the level of naming. Playing on the simultaneity of the phonetics of 'feel'd' as signifying both feeling and field, untraceable limbs of varying opacities are lodged and dislodged from certain spatial locations across the image plane depending on the viewer's perspective, balancing on a white and yellow patterned green rectangular shape that appears to be floating on the canvas.
Quarles's use of patterned planes can be gravitationally confusing, creating a surplus that seems to function as visual pulses of a new grammar akin to poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten's articulation of the lyric and lyrical.
In his chapter 'Not In Between' in Black and Blur (2017), Moten writes, 'New grammar can emerge from conventional writing as another writing infused with another sensuality, where the visual might expand toward hieroglyphic, from purely phonetic, meaning and where aurality further serves to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content.'1
Moten's 'new grammar' of the aural, sensual nature shares frictions and dialogues with Quarles's use of defamiliarised pattern-schemas, visual disorientation—which lends itself to the aural nature of her paintings—and formally transparent yet opaque transferences of non-meanings or disrupting authoritative significations of meanings.
Quarles, in her practice, works in line with the multiplicity of foundations of various Black feminists, queer scholars, and artists in her universal-rendered-as-accessible and radical futuring of semiotics via painting, installation, and drawings.
In this discussion, Quarles—whose work is also currently on view at X Museum in Beijing (Dance by tha Light of tha Moon, 14 March–30 May 2021)—introduces her upcoming exhibition at South London Gallery in London (18 June–29 August 2021) and recent shows with Pilar Corrias, discussing the conceptual and philosophical threads that weave in and out of her MCA Chicago exhibition.
PNYour upcoming show at South London Gallery marks your first institutional solo exhibition in London. Can you tell me more about the inclusion of drawings in the show and their relationship to your paintings?
CQI first included drawings in a number of my gallery shows at Pilar Corrias and Regen Projects. I've always had a drawing practice alongside my painting practice, so my paintings don't necessarily come from the drawings. They are not sketches or referencing anything.
The more specific you are with your unique situation, the more universal or accessible that becomes for people.
I think of them as occupying a completely different scale physically, and in terms of the time and mobility I have with drawing. It still maintains this gestural quality that extends into the paintings, through the use of paint and brushes and a lot of different tools. I do think my practice is rooted in drawing.
With the paintings, which are more recent for me, I find that it's another point of entry for the viewer. It's a way of accessing my thought process while engaging with the content of my work on a different scale.
I bring up scale, as I find that with the drawings, I can be more irreverent if I want to, and that's a place I still like to play with language. I used to put text in my paintings, but then I removed the text.
We are conditioned to see text as having this authoritative way of describing an image. I was always interested in the way that text can be this signifier of something that, if we understand a language, we can all understand the word, but we have to flush it out with our own recollection. So, it exists in this private and public space at the same time.
I found that with the paintings, text was a little too much. The read was too directly narrative. With the drawings, formally, there was more of a material synthesis, because you can write and draw with a pen.
I play with language a lot, even within the titles of my works. I love phonetic language and puns and things like that, but I'm always looking for ways that a viewer can situate the work with as much or as little supplemental material as they choose. The drawings are just a way to supplement the paintings that doesn't rely on having the checklist for the show or reading about the work.
PNI'm glad you brought up text—I was going to ask you how text works itself into your practice and process.
CQWhen I removed the text from the paintings, that's when the patterns came in. As an artist, often when you take something away from yourself or add a limitation, it opens up a whole new chapter for you. For me, that was really thinking through these patterned planes after removing the text and looking for a way to achieve visual signs or signifiers. It's a way to have this stand-in.
Often, with my patterns, it's this sort of visual punning for these multiple locations that the figures get connected to and anchored within. You can latch onto the familiarity of a checkered pattern or plaid, but there's still this double or triple location: is it a manufactured pattern or is it nature?
A lot of what I was interested in with language came in with the patterns, and that's been a way to leave it a bit more open-ended and not tied to English.
PNThe patterns seem to usher in a non-verbal and more accessible, perhaps universal, semiotics that leans to the fluid over a corrective, authoritative ascribing of meaning.
I wanted to ask about context related to this accessible semiotics. Your work recalls a sort of universal experience in its abstract forms, but references from a very particular lived experience in the States. The irony here is that this particular lived experience is not, in many ways, universal. How does universality and specificity translate in the European context?
CQI'm always a little surprised at how culturally different the U.K. is from the United States. There's such a different relationship to race and to class especially. The different contexts that my work is in is always really interesting to me.
I try to be as honest and open as possible that my experience is going to directly influence my work and I try to be really genuine with what my experience actually is. Talking about race with my work is where I try to be honest with my experience of being somebody who is multiracial; somebody who has a Black dad and a white mom, but who is usually seen as being white by white people.
Despite the fact that I'm using the figure in my work, it's much more about the experience of living within a racialised body, or living within a queer body rather than what it is to look at a racialised or queer body.
A lot of the markers of those experiences have much more to do with the compositions or the way that the gesture is allowed to have agency or activation—or how it can feel constrained or restricted within the limitations of the frame or these self-imposed frames within a frame.
The more specific you are with your unique situation, the more universal or accessible that becomes for people. I find that my experience has really allowed me to access these questions from an early age.
I like playing with that fine edge between the drive to make sense out of an image and what is actually being presented in front of you.
I was forced to constantly think about my identity and how I'm read and misread. Even regarding a person most aligned with privilege or power who doesn't have to question things as much because the whole world was designed to accomodate them, there are still aspects where they feel like representation falls short with them.
Privileging from a situation doesn't mean you aren't still confined within the dynamics of it. Context, therefore, has been a huge learning experience for me in the way that I can see how my work is received by people.
PNHow does your current exhibition at MCA Chicago translate as a homecoming, being the largest presentation of your work in your hometown? You've referenced your works as contextually and formally located at 'dis-locations' and 'otherworldly'. How would you translate that to this specific exhibition, particularly in reference to this new iteration and U.S. debut of your installation Never Believe It's Not So (Never Believe/ It's Not So)?
CQI made the installation with the intention of it being in this show. I've now made three of these installations and the first two are site-specific works. This one was designed to be modular.
The installation is comprised of three panels, designed with six or seven different iterations. The first iteration was at Art Basel on an L-shaped wall. At MCA Chicago, there are three walls that are meant to create an optical illusion of a continuous wall if you are looking at it from certain angles, but then can be walked through.
The perspective can be changed as you move around the room. It may take on a different form when it travels to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. The purpose of this installation, however, was to be able to configure it differently.
PNDoes that have anything to do specifically with this show or is the next iteration part of a planned progression?
CQWe played around with a few different versions for this show and some had to do with logistics and accessibility, but this will be the first time one of my installations can be walked through. There is text embedded in the striped pattern, which I have done for all three installations. I'm always looking for those opportunities to include text.
With my installations, you have to tilt your head to see text, as it's oriented vertically rather than horizontally. I think that by reading it in a way where your body has to move, it separates it somewhat from the imagery of the figures, which gives it that flattened distance I'm looking for with text.
The installation is another way of accessing the work. Typically in my work, there can be pattern planes with a raw canvas ground, but with the installations it's an opportunity to have a patterned ground and the raw canvas being the planes that interact with the figures. That's the case with this piece as well.
It's a way of expanding those same conditions. The figures can extend outside of the frame of the work and sometimes there can be this absence of material functioning as the intersection rather than exclusively serving as a presence of pattern that intersects with the figures.
PNWalking through it allows a more explicit experience of moving in and out of the frame.
Hearing you talk about that interaction between the viewer and the work indicates how it is not just challenging what we see, but what's precisely made invisible. This installation in particular is maybe the most material manifestation of that, especially in its explicitness as an experience.
CQI've been thinking about it a lot recently, particularly when having to remotely install the show, which is a trip. I mean, I've been working on this show for over three years now. When it actually came to installing, we did it all through Zoom, which is insane.
That distance has been interesting in that I've attempted to respond to this specific location, while imagining what it's like, and projecting myself into that space digitally and with my memory of the space. The exhibition at MCA Chicago concerns the locating of your body in institutional space. That's how I've conceived it with the curator, Grace Deveney.
We were imagining the show moving from these smaller areas into this progressively larger space, building awareness of how your own body shifts and moves through the rooms. Our connection and attachment to the human form is something I play with in working with the figure. We already want to add a face or a figure to whatever we see.
Working with the figure can generate a lot of assumptions, but hopefully it can also hold people's attention long enough, so that they start to question what they initially saw. I like playing with that fine edge between the drive to make sense out of an image and what is actually being presented in front of you. It's a fine line to walk, because I don't want people to assume the most generic read of the painting, so then it's about how to keep the viewer actively thinking and in the conversation rather than passively looking at the work.
A lot of the specificity of the show was about locating the viewer and having this ability to walk through the show and really feel, culminating in this large space where viewers can have their own body implicated in the viewing experience.
PNIt's not just an assumption and then realising that that assumption is maybe falsely constructed, or constructed on very popular misconceptions, but it's locating how and from where that happens in yourself.
CQYeah, and that's so much of what the power of art is. As an artist, it's really amazing to be in the process of making a work. And then as a viewer, in the process of looking and experiencing it.
I find that painting, and art, is a way to have many ideas happening at once, while still being understood, seen, and felt in a way that isn't overburdened and complicated.
So little of it is actually the static of the artwork and so much of it is a process of making and then a process of looking. That's where a lot of the political potency of art lies: in process-based imagining. It opens up a way of thinking that, although we're working within the frameworks of a capitalist, commodified object, gives value to the work. It generates the potential for having these alternative modes of thinking through the experience of making or looking at art.
PNThere are both literal and metaphysical fluid interior-exterior boundaries in your paintings that you outline explicitly in the installation. Would you describe your paintings as consciously challenging the privileging of ocularcentrism in painting historically? How would you trace this philosophically, or in relation to your background in philosophy?
CQI studied philosophy in undergrad because I've always seen art as a vehicle for conveying ideas, amongst other mediums. I wanted to experiment with what it would be like to get a better sense of where I was positioned with ideas that interested me, and then to see what it was like to use a medium like the written word and language to try to describe it.
I found that it was so difficult for me to express a lot of these ideas, because a lot of what I'm interested in talking about is the simultaneous, double, triple, quadruple meaning of things, and language is so inherently linear.
I think a lot about the scene from the film Amadeus (1984), where Mozart is talking about The Marriage of Figaro. He explains that if an argument were to happen solely verbally, and people were talking over each other, you couldn't understand it. If you set it to music, however, it becomes harmonious. It's beautiful, and it turns into something you can feel, as well as understand.
I've tried to work through a lot of my ideas with language and have found it to be extremely difficult, given how problematic language can be. When you're using academic jargon to avoid using harmful language to describe something, it also becomes inaccessible to a person who's not well-versed in that type of speaking.
I find that painting, and art, is a way to have many ideas happening at once, while still being understood, seen, and felt in a way that isn't overburdened and complicated. If you overburden a painting with meaning, it becomes or potentiates an interesting image.
I found that to be a really helpful tool to talk about these histories of being in your own body and having identity. If you're more aligned with power, as in the status quo, you don't notice certain things about who you are, because there's no questioning of it, and every system is designed to accommodate it.
As soon as you somewhat start to deviate from that, however, it's completely different. You could think about it with gender. If you deviate from the patriarchy by being a woman, that's one thing. If you deviate from it even more by being gender non-binary or trans, that's a whole other thing.
In these ways, we get further and further from those centres of power. I found painting and visual art to be a helpful medium in order to talk about simultaneity without having it be so confusing. I found painting to be especially interesting, given its long history of how we are expected to see a painting.
Even my installations explore this idea of what necessitates the naming of a painting. It's a scale shift and optical illusion where, suddenly, the definition of what a painting is starts to break down, even though it's representational imagery painted on a canvas. It couldn't be more of a painting, in a way.
PNYour paintings are asking that question: what do we see as a painting and what precisely qualifies as a painting?
CQI think those lines of how we define things can also be interesting to challenge. Especially with the content that I'm interested in driving home with my work—about how we name things and what actually defines it.
PNYou motion toward other methods of reading and seeing that are in flux, with an emphasis on understanding through feeling. How do you gesture to ways outside of the visual realm, in order for art to be read?
CQI think that a lot of the representational qualities of the work are still rendered in a very gestural way. The paintings get developed through this process of a gestural intention, before I stop myself from completing the line.
I take a step back from the work and challenge myself to make a connection that is not exclusive to sense memory. This creates friction from the fact that I often draw the figure from real material life. It's still a muscle memory of the figure, but then an interruption of that with a visual process.
It's always a back and forth between a memory of drawing the figure and then observing what I'm actually doing. This is echoed in communication, too: intent and then actuality. That's why moments like drips on the painting can determine the whole road I go down.
It's really a process of attempting to observe my own work and to see what happens. In this way, the process is still using representational elements, yet rooted in this way of building the composition and the image in both abstraction and gestural thinking. —[O]
1 Fred Moten, Black and Blur, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, p.3.