Christina Quarles Paints the Complicated, Intimate Moments When We Feel like Ourselves

Claire Voon
Apr 15, 2020 9:35PM

Christina Quarles, It's Hardly Sink Or Swim, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

Portrait of Christina Quarles by Daniel Dorsa. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

You can count all the hands and feet in Christina Quarles’s paintings of harlequin figures, but follow the arc of each long limb, and all sense of exactness dissolves. Angular arms merge with torsos that seem to belong to multiple bodies; clusters of legs attach to willowy frames sprouting tangles of arms and faces. The overall effect is dizzying, yet it’s not discordant. It instills in you an understanding—bordering on trust—that each person is somehow whole. How many there are is beside the point.

“I’m really interested in exploring what it is to be within your own body looking out,” Quarles said on a recent afternoon, speaking via FaceTime from her Los Angeles home. “I’ll often say that these are portraits, but they aren’t portraits of looking at a body—they’re portraits of living within your own body. So much of my work is about moments of intimacy when you can actually exist in all your contradictions and complications.”

Christina Quarles, In My Love, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.


Quarles, 35, approaches figuration through a steadfast embrace of ambiguity—a style that has contributed to her fast ascendence as one of the most compelling painters working today. She has been included in major institutional shows from the New Museum’s “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” in 2017 to the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial in 2018. She has also exhibited globally, with solo presentations in cities from London to Shanghai. Earlier this month, the largest presentation of her work to date was scheduled to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, bringing together about four dozen paintings and drawings made over the last three years. It has been postponed indefinitely, however, with the museum now closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social distancing with her wife and their two cats, Quarles has suddenly found herself with unexpected free time (which she is partially filling with taking walks and watching shows like Westworld and Tiger King). Despite coming off of many deadlines for the MCA Chicago show, as well as a solo exhibition at South London Gallery (originally set to open on April 29th), she has continued painting. During our conversation, she showed me two in-progress canvases: One features elongated figures awash in warm orange hues; the other has a popping palette of electric lavender and hot pink. Like most of Quarles’s work, they are massive, nearly overtaking two walls in her garage, which she has converted into a temporary studio.

Christina Quarles, Underneath It All, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

Christina Quarles, Laid Down Beside Yew, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

“I’ve been slowly painting even though I’m technically supposed to be taking a break right now,” Quarles said. “It’s insane how difficult it is to concentrate, though. There’s this big unknown about deadlines, but when I can concentrate on painting, it’s very therapeutic.”

The MCA Chicago show would have been a homecoming of sorts for her. Quarles was born in the city to lifelong Chicagoans; her family moved to California when she was three. While she considers Los Angeles her home, she still feels a strong connection to Chicago—particularly the South Side, where her late great-grandfather lived his entire life. Her extended family, most of whom have moved out of state, had planned to meet up in Chicago for the exhibition. “I’m excited about the show eventually opening because I’m really excited about having all my family come out—it will be fun to experience Chicago with them,” she said.

Christina Quarles, Peer Amid (Peered Amidst), 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

In Los Angeles, Quarles enrolled at the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and attended college-level classes. The intensive program left her feeling well-trained in technique, but she didn’t know what she actually wanted to make. As an undergrad at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, she studied studio arts and philosophy and was drawn especially to critical race theory. “I was interested in pulling apart the language and looking to something that didn’t use the term ‘mixed race,’” Quarles, who has a Black father and white mother, said. “I felt like ‘mixed race’ was this vague position that glosses over all the different variables of having a multiply situated racial identity.”

Writing, however, with its linear format and reliance on definitions, proved too limiting a medium for Quarles. In 2014, she enrolled in grad school at Yale University’s painting department to mine the potentials of line and color. The years following college had been challenging—graduating just before the 2008 financial crisis, Quarles had worked jobs ranging from a PA for Lifetime original movies to a graphic designer—but the MFA program gave her the space to more fully express her ideas. “I knew I wanted to paint about ambiguity, but I didn’t want to make ambiguous images,” Quarles said. “It was definitely an uphill battle for two years, and then everything kind of clicked in my last semester.”

Christina Quarles, Magic (Never Believe, It's Not So), 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

Quarles has quickly become known for the jazzy, fluid style of trompe l’oeil painting that she honed at Yale. Her figures look like impossible bodies inhabiting impossible spaces: In constant flux, they bend over, curl around, and fuse into each other; their luminous flesh stretches not just into but also through brightly patterned planes that suggest the surfaces of rooms or outdoor spaces. In When It’ll Dawn on Us, Then Will It Dawn on Us (2018), a mass of figures tiptoes across a surface reminiscent of a dance floor; the unmoored black area is illuminated with an LED-like twinkle of flowers. The bodies could all at once be collapsing onto one another, supporting a collective fall, or emerging from a single soul. Similarly, in one of Quarles’s newest paintings, titled Don’t They Know? It’s the End of tha World (2020), bodies contort into uneasy positions, their twisted limbs hugging ornate window grills that float in their own dimension. Frozen in this captivating dance, the figures could either be crushing or cradling one another.

This dislocation of figures and space blurs boundaries to construct a portrait of a complex but fulfilling selfhood. It creates what Quarles described as “this sense of multiple intimate experiences and touches.” As someone who identifies as queer and racially multiple, she often grapples with expressing the full extent of her intersecting identities. For Quarles, navigating different social conditions can mean self-censoring to fit expectations or having someone mistake who she is. “I find that my skin color, on the one hand, is entirely what makes up my set of experiences because I’m seen as white, and that is very informative of how I’m able to move through the world,” Quarles said. “But on the other hand, it’s also not the totality of my experiences or my identity.”

Christina Quarles, Pour Over, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

Christina Quarles, An Absense the Size of Yew, 2019. © Christina Quarles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Pilar Corrias, London.

To Grace Deveney, a former MCA assistant curator who organized the museum’s exhibition, what makes Quarles’s paintings especially empowering is their ability “to speak about the universal experience of existing within a body.” She added, “I’ve also been totally fascinated by the way her work explores intimacy, togetherness, and the ways these forms of relating operate outside of heteronormative romantic constructs. This, in particular, seems unintendedly and eerily relevant as we all adjust to new ways of being together, apart.”

When the MCA’s exhibition eventually opens, after several (or many) months of social distancing, viewers may appreciate these moments of unbridled intimacy more than ever. Deveney recalled her own initial impressions of Quarles’s paintings in 2017, at concurrent shows at the New Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“I was struck by the way my connection with them transcended just a visual experience,” she said. “They made me aware of my body in space and the range of affective capacities wrapped up in touch and physical contact.”

Claire Voon