Artist Christina Quarles is perhaps best known for her lyrical, vibrant paintings of intersecting bodies and limbs. Her practice also spans drawing and digital illustration, and her work is currently the subject of two solo exhibitions—at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which is showing the largest presentation of Quarles’s work to date, and at the X Museum in Beijing. In June, the artist will open a third major solo show at the South London Gallery.
On the occasion of these international presentations, ARTnews spoke with Quarles about her process for creating intricate figurative compositions, how her painting and drawing practices converge, diverge, and complement one another, what sources she looks to for inspiration, and more.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ARTnews: Can you tell me about your approach to figuration and how you developed the distinct language of intertwining bodies and limbs that make up many of your works?
Quarles: I’ve been working with the figure for a long time—my earliest art lessons were figure drawing based. My mom was a single mom and I was put in various after-school programs. Some of them were cooking, some were craft-based, and some were art-based. The art-based ones were the ones I really gravitated toward. When I was 12, there was some sort of mix up where I was put into a figure-drawing class that was for adults, so there was a live nude model. I was really excited about it because I was really wanting to be a serious artist, and it seemed like all the serious artists that I knew about were people who did paintings of nudes. So, I’ve been practicing this drawing of the figure for about 24 years now. And in high school—I went to an art high school in Los Angeles—I had a very influential teacher at that time who taught figure drawing. A lot of my work stems from this familiarity with drawing and figure drawing, in particular. I still take, to this day, figure drawing classes, whenever possible, just to work with a live model. That observational drawing, I use that to build and maintain the muscle memory of drawing the figure.
Is there a gestural element to how you draw the figure?
I approach everything in a gestural drawing way, so it’s still this emphasis on a gestural line. In grad school, I learned how to develop the tools for using gestural lines. So, that’s what really opened up painting for me: a way to have what had before been these line drawings into something that could be a line made with a really fat brush, or a line made with a brush that’s dipped in a gradient. But when I made a painting it’s still very much tied to this physical muscle memory of drawing the figure, so I will approach a canvas with a lot of internalized practice but no actual notes when I’m going to the piece. So, I will have internalized figure drawing and some crazy topiary I saw on the way to the studio and all these things. But when I get to the studio, it’s really this physical, abstracted mark making, and then I interrupt the process from being purely a physical manifestation of what I’ve seen to take a step back and observe my paintings and really see what’s happening. I try to challenge myself to connect the forms into a figure or a composition that maybe I hadn’t intended to with that physical mark.
As the figures start to get more and more developed, then I photograph the work and bring it into my computer and I play around with Illustrator. That’s a way for me to still incorporate drawing and experimentation in this play between intention and actuality. It changes the gesture into being not this grand physical gesture but this more minute, figure gesture of a mouse trackpad. It allows me to create these digital moves that I bring back into the canvas through stenciling, which allows for a gesture that’s really not tied to my physical body—so it’s a way of mixing up the gesture that gets put into the work. I think the figure, for me, is a helpful tool because I know it so well that I can play with the limits and the stretching of legibility just because I’m so familiar with how it’s actually supposed to look.
What are some of the underlying ideas and themes you’re communicating in these compositions?
I’m interested in using the figure to talk about these points of identity that we have, or these points of knowing of ourselves or unknowing of ourselves. But I’m less interested in what it is to look at another person and I’m more interested in painting what it is to be in your own body and experiencing the world and yourself through this outward looking that happens. So, the figures are a way of anchoring the viewer in this sense of physicality, weight or weightlessness, or ease or discomfort. It’s less about representing an actual, specific body. A lot of what interests me are themes of the sort of fragmentation that happens of yourself when you are in your body and really at a disadvantage in a way of knowing yourself because you know all [your] contradictions, all the ways you exceed or don’t quite fit into these certain categories of identity that we’re placed in. And yet we experience a world of other people where [they are] these cohesive figures.
We know ourselves as this fragmented jumble of limbs and this kind of code switching that happens throughout our lives and throughout our days. A lot of the work is trying to tap into that experience of the self, and then, for me, it’s about overlapping that with what it is to be in a racialized body as somebody who’s multiracial and who is half Black but is also half white and is legibly seen as white by white people. So, I have this contradiction of my racial identity that is not summarized solely by the way I look and oftentimes my experience is contradicted by the way that I look … The basis of the work is trying to get at what it is to be in a racialized body, to be in a gendered body, to be in a queer body, really to be in any body and the confusing place that that actually is with knowing yourself.
How do you come up with your compositions, which often include so many colors and patterns, and what are you hoping to achieve by way of those combinations?
The composition gets determined as I work through the painting—it’s not something that’s decided beforehand. It’s always responding to what interests me in the pieces as a viewer, and that’s the process of making but then stepping back and looking at the work. By the time it’s a piece that’s in the computer, that’s when I play around more with the patterns and the planes. I’m always looking for a way to connect the figures to something that has multiple locations and these patterns I find are a way of having visual punning that can happen in the work. And that’s to emphasize the sense of a self that’s maybe multiply situated or gains definition from one context but then the composition gets complicated when you think about it in a different context.
In grad school I was writing on a lot of my canvases, and I love the way that language does that in a way. It is this visually very flat [element] that alludes to something that’s not being visually represented. I keep that interest in text in my drawings and in my titles, but with the paintings I found that—just because we have this hierarchy of how we read an image and this, I think, preferential treatment of language—it was too much of a direct connection to the figures and to the composition and it anchored it too concretely. When I took out the language, that’s really when the patterns started to come in. I see the patterns serving that same function: you could have a repeating pattern of flowers and it could be something that you can connect to pretty quickly and understand, and yet the longer you sit with it the more it puns. Is it a blanket or is it a field of flowers? Is it something that has dimension or is it flat like a table top?
[The patterns are] a way to anchor the figures to multiple locations that also literally can cut into them. They’re placed but also displaced. So, I think of that composition as underscoring the sense of having certain intersections of identity within how you see yourself. These things that give you context and meaning and place and community, but also something that sort of fragments a sense of being to have all the crazy contradictions that actually encapsulate you.
Your drawings, however, still often incorporate words and phrases. How do you come up with these textual elements?
It’s similar to how I pick out the patterns—really, the patterns and text are so related. It tends to be, in the case of the patterns, something that I’ve seen in real life and, in the case of the text, something that I’ve overheard. It usually comes from ordinary, everyday encounters. With language, it’s in the mass culture realm, and I love the idea of things being these copies of a copy of a copy, or something that started off in high culture but then gets copied and copied and copied until suddenly it’s in mass culture, pop culture. I look for texts in anything from pop music to television to advertisements to theory or fiction that I’m reading, or poetry. I usually try to have phonetic spelling in the text as a way of complicating the puns that could happen in the work.
How do the drawings differ from your paintings?
I find the drawing practice to be a place where I can really explore text, which oftentimes works its way into the title of the piece, whether it’s a painting or a drawing. I think of drawing as an interesting medium where text actually still functions for me because it is materially not that strange to write with a pen. I’m not contending with color or texture or layers, even. It’s really—because I work with pen on paper—an additive process that is very flat and very much just black line. It’s playing more with positive and negative space, and it’s just a place where I can quickly think through ideas. I have my drawing practice as sort of a thinking practice.
You’ve said that you tend to draw inspiration from everyday encounters. Are there any artists or artistic movements that have especially informed your work?
I grew up in L.A., really close to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s changed a lot since the early ’90s when I was going there as a kid, but I found that was a great resource to go to that museum all the time—I loved the 20th-century [art] wing. I always loved that Hockney painting that’s his drive to the studio. I fell in love with that piece as a kid and I’d always check it out on my way to see whatever exhibit was in town. And I also grew up going to the Getty Villa, a mock Italian villa with frescoes and very classical depictions of nudes and trompe l’oeil elements—all this captured my attention and are things I continue to think through in my paintings.
In my life I’ve been inspired by art that is not painting. I think that when I look at a painting I tend to really lock into how it’s made. I’m curious because I’m making paintings … which I don’t think is the best way to experience a work of art because then you’re sort of separating out different elements. I think it’s best to encounter an entire piece of work and move through that organically. I find that I’m able to do that more with work that doesn’t look like mine. I’ve always been really interested in the work of Adrian Piper or Glenn Ligon or somebody like Leslie Hewitt, who does photography. I find that [their] ideas are something that I really connect with and then the form that it takes is so different than mine that I’m able to really appreciate it as an art object rather than just trying to pick apart how it’s made.