As a child, Christina Quarles (Chicago, 38) did not stop drawing. “My mother was a single mother who worked a lot, she was a film and television writer, and I had to spend a lot of time busy, so I gravitated towards all the art courses possible, public, cheap, accessible… For me it was the best way to spend my free time”, explains the artist. He was born in Chicago, but moved to Los Angeles at the age of five; He grew up in the heart of the city, near Koreatown. “It doesn’t feel like a big metropolis, rather it’s a collection of small neighborhoods. I was influenced by growing up surrounded by so many different cultures and people. And that feeling of artifice: there are fountains with water and greenery, but it’s a desert, I hadn’t been to New York but I knew the streets of him from the Paramount studios. I’ve always found beauty in the strangeness of my city and I think it carries over into my work,” he reflects, his curly hair pulled back into a tousled chignon, always smiling. He now he lives in Altadena, near the mountains. «My wife and I bought a house up here just before the pandemic, in 2019», he explains in a video call. She is sitting in his studio, surrounded by brushes, frames, colours. She finalizes the details for your new exhibit in Hauser & Wirth Menorca (open until 29 October) and is preparing a summer itinerary through Europe that will take her to Rome and Berlin, where she has another exhibition in Burger Bahnhof Until September.
Because the international projection of Quarles has not stopped growing in recent years. That girl who discovered at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that something else was hiding behind the stuffed animals in Mike Kelly’s works is a long way off – “That’s when I realized that art can look but talk about something completely different,” she says—and that at the age of 10 she was shocked to see Yayoi Kusama’s work live. In 2022 Quarles participated in the Venice Biennale; also last year she sold her painting of her at a Sotheby’s auction The night has fallen upon us (on us) for a record sum for his work, 4.5 million dollars, and is already preparing a new exhibition in London which will coincide with the Frieze art fair in October. “Despite everything that happens outside my routine, nothing has changed in my studio,” he says, “the process of creating remains the same no matter what level of attention or success you have, there are still bad days when you doubt yourself, days where you screw up a picture and others where you fix the problem, it’s all good.”
Quarles arrives at the studio very early in the morning, “when there are no interruptions or too many daily problems to worry about which kill one’s ability to make decisions about painting.” Because reflection is essential in his work. In fact, his paintings are always accompanied by jargon titles, hints at what his distorted figures represent, shown in fragments. Wallpaper assures that he is “inventing a new figurative language”. To find it, he first had to distance himself from art, take refuge in ideas and words: his first university studies were in philosophy at the progressive Hampshire College and then he specialized in art and graphic design at Yale. He argues it this way: “When I looked at the art programs, I felt that a lot of time was devoted to the knowledge of materials and the creation of still lifes and I had already been doing all those things for four years in high school. I had the feeling that he was taking a step back. I felt that what I really needed was more in-depth instruction in how to think critically, interpret texts, and explore ideas with more analytical depth. And that’s why I decided to study philosophy as a way to get back to the idea of making art”.
The title of his thesis was Kiss my kind (Kiss my kind). In it you talked about race and gender, how did you find that painting was a better medium to address these issues than writing?
In my thesis I wanted to focus on thinking about my racial identity. I realized that someone who has more than one race is always spoken of in a very simplistic way. You just mention that you are of mixed race, but even with another person from a background like mine where my father is black and my mother is white, but appearing more black while I appear more white, the experiences of racial identity are completely different. And I really wanted to find some of the flaws in the language when arguing from a multiracial identity. I explored this through a written thesis and that’s when I saw that for me, using language was limiting and art was another way to approach it.
And he places it through the body, using a non-realistic figuration, full of fragments of bodies…
I have always been attracted to the figurative. There is a human impulse to find a face in everything, I don’t know, we see a wardrobe and say it has two eyes and a nose… On the one hand, there is that link with shapes, but it is also a tool that it helps me play with the expectations of what is and isn’t readable to the naked eye. When you look at the painting, you discover more and more layers of information and start questioning your first impression. This reflects my personal experience. My sense of self isn’t revealed just by looking at me. There are aspects of my identity that are very clear when I look at myself: I identify as a woman and am often read as a woman, but other things are not so obvious, half the time people see me as queer, but half the time sometimes they don’t. With issues like my race I feel like I have to constantly assert myself, even with those who know me very well. I feel like sometimes people forget that I’m not white because that’s how most people see me, especially white people. And the more I talk to others the more I realize that everyone feels that some aspect of themselves is simplified, it’s not something specific to being multiracial or queer. We all want to be understood.
Are all these questions about race and identity more present now in the art world?
Yes, I think some historical omissions in the art world’s hiring programs and processes are starting to be corrected. This brings more diversity, inclusion and nuance when discussing issues such as race, gender or sexuality, which perhaps have been portrayed in more simplistic terms in the past when everything was seen as black and white, gay and straight, male and female.
Kerry James Marshall turned to the study of the old masters to vindicate a new canon.
The fascinating thing about art is that continuum of people having learned from those who came before. It’s very exciting to think about what will happen in 100 years, which artists will then be examined to create new art. All of us artists today have looked at work done primarily by a male, white, western canon, and I think what’s interesting about art is that you look at history, whatever it was, and then filter it through your own experience. and interests.
Talk about the future and now the conversation turns to artificial intelligence. Do you think it will change the art world? It worries you?
I think it will change that for sure, but I’m not afraid because artists can use the new tools in interesting and innovative ways. Like any other technological leap, it will make other things less relevant. It happened when photography was invented: in the end it didn’t end with painting, but it changed what a painting was allowed to do, because it no longer had to fulfill the function of total representation of a moment or a story, this was a new tool for this emerged. There are a lot of implications and I think it won’t all be great or awful, just a mix of things. We need to think about it honestly instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
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