Breakout Star Nathaniel Mary Quinn Channels His Demons into Expressive Paintings

Alina Cohen
Sep 26, 2019 5:09PM

Portrait of Nathaniel Mary Quinn by Kyle Dorosz. Courtesy of the artist.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn , How Come Not Me , 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. © Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn turns black identity into an uncanny puzzle. With charcoal, gouache, gold leaf, and pastel, he generates portraits that resemble collages. Foreheads and noses appear at different scales and hues. One lip looks painted, the other photographic. Full-body pictures are three-part affairs, mixing and matching body parts. At times, they are reminiscent of the Surrealists“exquisite corpse” drawings. In Jekyll and Hyde (2019), Quinn places two canvases side by side, each one displaying an abstracted half of a single face. The painting, representative of Quinn’s larger oeuvre, thematizes duality.

Psychological complexity is baked into Quinn’s formula. The hodgepodge visual elements in his portraits conjure the mysteries of personality: People, and our memories of them, are ever-shifting. Quinn says he’s interested in articulating “the essence of humanity” and in bringing “different parts onto one surface.” In a new exhibition, on view at Gagosian in Beverly Hills through October 19th, the artist displays fractured likenesses of himself and people close to him. Through these works, the artist grapples with his own doubts and insecurities. “A part of my practice involves a tremendous amount of empathy and vulnerability,” Quinn explained. “Those are my tools.”

Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Jekyll and Hyde, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. © Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Courtesy of Gagosian.


Quinn titled the exhibition “Hollow and Cut”—a nod to his collage process, as well as his attempts to, as he said, “lay bare my wounds.” Raw and honest in his paintings, the artist is also quite candid in his writing and speech. In 2018, he penned an essay for British Vogue about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in a community riddled with crime. Both of his parents were illiterate, and his mother was ill and disabled. Quinn demonstrated keen, precocious drawing abilities and traded his creations for protection from local gangs. As a teenager, he won a scholarship to boarding school in Indiana. Yet shortly after he arrived, his mother died of unknown causes. Quinn’s troubles were unrelenting—his family abandoned him and their Chicago home shortly after the funeral, and the artist lost contact with his father and brothers. Instead of succumbing to the rest of his family’s fate, he attended university at Wabash College, then received his MFA from New York University in 2002.

As his reputation as a painter grew, Quinn channeled his experiences into his work. He showed in galleries around New York and, in 2014, got his big break: Pace gave him a solo show in London, titled “Past/Present.” This spring, Quinn’s success reached new heights when the Drawing Center honored him at its annual benefit, and Gagosian announced its representation of him.

During a recent phone conversation, Quinn freely admitted that this newfound fame is hardly a panacea for self-doubt. “Nothing external can solve that,” he said. “The sense of power and real confidence and happiness, it doesn’t matter what kind of gallery you’re working with.” Gagosian’s support has only made him grapple more intimately with the “embedded fears” he says he carries.

Installation view of Nathanial Mary Quinn, “Hollow and Cut,” 2019. Photo by Jeff McLane. © Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Quinn translates those insecurities onto canvas. His primary inspirations are internal: moods and feelings that he evokes through color and line. How Come Not Me (2019), for example, is a portrait comprised of jumbled parts: a pink patch framing an ear; a thick, ruby-colored lower lip; a crimson brush of forehead with a gridded pattern.

Quinn describes the picture as an unconventional self-portrait. “How come not me? That’s a lingering feeling or question of mine, just because of my life. I always deal with this sense of not feeling worthy enough,” the artist admitted. He recalled a parents’ weekend at school, when he wondered why his own mother and father couldn’t also attend and be there to support him.

C’mo’ And Walk With Me (2019), one of the three-part portraits, is related to Quinn’s mother. He describes her as an avid churchgoer; his figure’s shiny black Mary Janes and hands-on-waist posture convey a fitting sense of propriety. The artist has just one photograph of his mother, but he never uses it. That picture, so tied to his own reality, hasn’t helped him articulate his artistic vision. Instead, he relies on his imagination.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Hiding in Plain Discomfort, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. © Nathaniel Mary Quinn. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn
C'mo' And Walk With Me, 2019

The artist also looks to a variety of external influences, which range from Pablo Picasso—Quinn calls his work “emotional cubism”—to comedians Dave Chapelle and Redd Foxx; gospel music; James Baldwin’s writings; and the film Forrest Gump. Quinn has painted his neighbors in his Crown Heights neighborhood, and he uses magazines and found photography as source material. “You learn from everything,” he said.

Recently, Quinn has been pushing his practice towards abstraction. While his pictures retain figurative elements, some of his portraits now lack eyes, mouths, or noses. He says the development is his way of “fighting to visually articulate” the elements that contribute to “the construction of human identity.”

Quinn’s story, both harrowing and redemptive, is also the kind of Dickensian tale ripe for art world attention. But of course, as evidenced by Quinn’s layered paintings, that’s just the surface of his personal narrative. Beneath the Gagosian show and his recent success lies an artist still reckoning with his own demons, in the same way he always has. “My art practice hasn’t been touched at all,” he said about the new representation and attention. “I have no qualms about defending my art practice. I defend it at all costs.”

Alina Cohen