Christina Quarles on artistic process, identity, and double consciousness
Christina Quarles, Tripping Over My Joy, runs from 10 October – 16 December, 2023, Pillar Corrias, London, pillarcorrias.com
Your partnership with Pilar Corrias dates back to 2017. How has this collaboration influenced your artistic journey, and what do you hope viewers and collectors discover in your fourth exhibition with the gallery, “Tripping Over My Joy”?
I went to New York twice in one month shortly after grad school because I was in a group exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem and then a group exhibition at the New Museum. And so I met with Pilar for the first time when I was going to see my exhibition in Harlem, and I went back to LA, and then we met again when I was doing the New Museum show. Shaba Self was also in the New Museum show with me, and that was the first time that she saw my work in person within that context. So, I think we just immediately connected with one another.
That’s what’s so important with working with dealers, is to connect with the people behind the name and the space. It’s really just about getting together with people who seem to really want to push the sort of outer limits of what your practice can be and to really support all the things that you go through as an artist. Whether I mean, I think I think what it really comes down to is connecting with somebody on a deeper level than what the work is that you’re making at that moment, because the idea is hopefully you’re going to evolve and change over time.
So, I think with this one, I wanted to make an exhibition that could really showcase this new beginning for the gallery, this new, big, beautiful space, while still doing moments of interventions architecturally with the space, which is important to my practice and something that Pilar really supports with all of her artists, are these more institutional interventions. But since it was a new space, I also wanted to do that in more subtle ways with lighting and with paint, and also just with the paintings that I was including in the show.
I was lucky enough to see your exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof last month and fell in love with your work and how distinctive it is. I’d love to know how you settled on your style and medium use.
That was such a fun show. I was lucky enough to get to go to Berlin twice to see it. It was really nice to see it first when it first opened and then to see the show several months later, being able to start to see some of their programming and some of the ways that they were reconfiguring the museum, I was like, oh, it’s so inviting and open now.
Could you talk a bit about how your study of drawing, experimental painting techniques, and digital technology intersect to convey these themes in your work?
Yeah, so I started off as a drawer. I always archive, that’s the material I start off with. I think it’s like a lot of artists start with drawing because it’s such an affordable way to make art in a way that you can learn a lot with just some newsprint and some charcoal, which is almost no money. I started off drawing, and I – early on – was taking a lot of figure drawing classes. I took my first figure drawing class when I was twelve. And then I had figure drawing throughout my teenage years. I really put in sort of like the 10,000 hours you have to put in to be an expert at something. So, I feel like I have a lot of play that I can have with the figure because it’s such a familiar subject matter for me, and it’s something that has become more sort of second nature, like how to make it situated in space. It’s been something that allows me to sort of bend and contort and mess with the stability of the figure.
Then, as far as painting, I mean, I went to grad school in 2014, suddenly realizing that I didn’t really know how to use oil paints. So, I quickly took a community college class to learn how to use oil paints, and I think that that was an interesting way to start. Grad school was with this very traditional, long-standing drawing practice and then a much more new introduction to painting. It’s allowed me to really think of paint in a more experimental way while still having these kinds of old master techniques of drawing in my practice. With painting, I ended up not using oil paints but using acrylic paints because it is more connected to the sort of speed of drawing. I was really taking a lot of different courses and experimenting with a lot of different techniques. There are a lot of printmaking applications that get applied to my practice – not literally, but the idea of sort of stencilling and masking and laying down paint.
In the interim between undergrad and grad school, I also worked as a graphic designer for many years. At that time, maybe that was just a way to make money and sustain a studio practice on the side. I got really familiar with Adobe Illustrator during that period, And so now with my paintings, I actually really use Adobe Illustrator as a key component of making the like halfway through.
I start off a painting without really knowing where it’s going to end up. I just start gesturally and I kind of build the composition from this back-and-forth relationship between an intended mark and then what actually happens. I start to build imagery out of observing the marks that start to get laid down. But then halfway through, I’ll photograph the work, bring it into the computer, and then play around with Adobe Illustrator for the different patterns and planes and anything that looks sort of like a squiggly mark that’s not quite like at the scale of a gestural brushstroke. That’s something that’s created in Illustrator and then used as either a template to mimic in real life. Or sometimes I’ll actually, just with the vinyl solder that I have in the studio, print out stencils that are exactly like the drawn digital mark and then use that as a stencilling mask to apply paint. So it’s always this back-and-forth between a tactical and digital language.
The influence of L.A.’s light and colours on your palette is evident in your recent paintings. How does the environment of Los Angeles shape your artistic vision, and what significance do these elements hold in your artwork?
I grew up in Los Angeles and the light in the sky is something that I think is very particular there because you have these very large, long vistas from which to view the sky. And I feel like you’re always in traffic on a freeway, which is somewhat elevated. And so you just have these huge expanses of sky while still being in the middle of the city. But also, LA is interesting because there’s so much contradiction and so much artifice in the landscape because everything there was kind of brought in. So it’s all these plants that weren’t ever really supposed to be there and all of this sort of artificial watering that happens.
Then, on top of that, you have the film industry. Because my family moved to Los Angeles to be in the film industry, I grew up going to Paramount Studios all the time, where my mom worked. And they have a fake set of New York. I really grew up, with this sort of sense of play and what you could combine visually. Even just the architecture – it’s always been fascinating to come to a place like London where you still have Tudor architecture that it’s from the period. But in LA, you have these houses from the 1920s that are meant to look like a Tudor mansion. And then that’s right next to a colonial-style house. So people just sort of have this strange separation of narrative and history from the way things look visually there.
I find that that’s something that has also just really influenced the combination of patterns and references and the work combined with this very beautiful natural element of the light and the sky and the sunsets and mountains and ocean and everything. You have this very real presence of nature, but up against this true artifice and then this just incredible cultural amalgamation. London is a very similar city, but in Los Angeles, I grew up right next to Koreatown, so my school was like 90% 1st generation Korean American students. And then there’s a huge Latino population. It’s such an interesting group of different cultures and people and different transplants, so that’s also something that has influenced my practice.
So your art tends to blur the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between these two elements of your work and how they contribute to your storytelling.
As I was saying before, the way that I build a painting is really without referencing any sketches or any predetermined composition. Instead, I still do a lot of figure drawing. Even for the show, I was having models coming into the studio and drawing from those life models. But I then will, after I’m done doing a drawing session, I’ll just take those drawings and just throw them away. They aren’t like being used to reference while I’m making a painting. It’s like this muscle memory of having drawn a figure that allows me to make the decisions of how to lay down line work and how to lay down brushwork on the canvas.
Ultimately, it’s this process of laying down a mark but then interrupting really completing that mark that allows for me to see. For example, I could see the intention of the back of a figure. But because I won’t complete the whole figure and instead I’ll step away from it, I can then have an intersection of decision-making where I can decide, well, actually, this back would be more interesting as an arm. The figure animation gets built through this sort of pivoting of a much more abstract brushwork process and then really it’s about honing in the abstraction into figuration, into a more representational scene, but one that isn’t fully rooted in any way. They’re clearly not like snapshots of the real world, but it is always referencing observational things.
Another thing that I love that you do in your work is how you engage with the idea of double consciousness in a contemporary context and you test and develop this idea. Could you talk about how your own daily experience of ambiguity informs your approach to this idea and how you convey it through your art?
I think that a big part of what motivates my practice is to find a shared language for an experience that isn’t always articulable. I guess I’d say finding a shared language in an experience that can sometimes feel quite isolating, which is something that I think the more I talk about it, the more I find that actually a lot of people share this sense, regardless of their particular or specific identity position.
I think a lot of people have this sense that they are kind of playing a role that maybe doesn’t fully sum up the totality of their experience or maybe their experience exceeds or falls short of the expectations of these certain identity positions that we either name ourselves or get named by other people. And so for me, though it’s been very apparent early on that aspects of my identity didn’t really neatly fit into categorization particularly because I’m mixed race. I have a black father and a white mother but I usually am seen as white, especially by white people in America at least. I just have this contradictory experience with the race I know I am and the race I’m perceived by other people.
From a very early age, before I had larger words to understand it and a larger understanding of theory to kind of bracket that experience, I still was just a little kid being like well, why is it that when I say my dad’s, black people don’t believe me? That sort of opened up this potential for the shortcomings of categorisation of identity but then also the need we have to connect with people and feel a sense of understanding and belonging with one another.
With the work that I make, I’m really interested in exploring this notion of what it is to be in your body and have this embodied experience in the world. I think a lot about the explorations of ideas of race, gender and sexuality that work really exist much more in the compositions than in the visual signifiers of what type of a body you’re looking at. Because so much of my experience of being in my body is contradicted by the way I appear to other people, I’m really thinking about the exact word phrase. I’m not using descriptions of skin colour in the paintings to sum up racial experience or what it is to be in a racialized body. Instead, I’m using this notion of what it is to come up against these multitudes of boundaries and multitudes of edge, and what it is to have to contort and bend your body to fit into the frame.
I’m always trying to find moments where there’s both the experience of having to fit into something that’s too small or some parameter that’s really an obstruction, but then, also finding moments of agency and moments of play and moments of activation within that because I think it’s always both. It’s never just oppressive and it’s never just freedom and pleasure. It’s always the combination of the two.
In this exhibition, you’ve also explored smaller-scale paintings on paper. What challenges and opportunities did this shift in scale present in terms of your artistic process and visual language?
Yeah, I think that scale is such a big part of my practice because it is so gesturally rooted. As I move from cabinets to canvas, the figuration stays largely at the same scales. That’s because it’s really in direct relation to the scale of my own body. It’s something that I like about bringing the digital process into the work. Illustrator is designed to be infinitely scalable because it’s not a pixel-based program, so I can do a gesture on the computer and then make it really big or make it really tiny. That’s a way of separating my body from the mark-making that happens in my work.
What’s been fun about working on these smaller paintings on paper that are in the exhibition is that it’s shifted the scale. It’s not only the physical scale of the work, which is very different for me. It’s a much smaller size than any of the paintings I do. It’s also that the durational scale is much smaller because things dry a lot quicker on paper and there’s sort of less fuss around a piece of paper as opposed to a canvas. Less labour went into making it. It feels like something where you can reasonably have a stack of paper in a much smaller space than you can have a stack of big canvases.
The durational scale is also important to the works on paper. It’s something that I really felt an urgent need to do after my daughter was born. I felt like my scale of time really shifted. Each painting or work on paper drawing that I do has this initial moment of being like, anything’s possible because I’m not working from a sketch. Then, it’s about me painting myself sort of into a corner and then trying to figure out a way to solve that compositionally and overcome the hurdle of what’s been applied to the surface and then coming out the other side and having a finished work.
That process can be like when you’re in the depths of painting yourself into a corner, it can be a really frustrating process. So, shifting the duration of that to a much smaller scale, the paintings on paper is something that allows for that process to happen more rapidly, which I found to be meaningful.
Finally, you’ve had an amazing few years in terms of success with your art and career. How has this affected your approach to creating, and what can we expect from you in the future?
So much of the work was started by me to have a tool for communication about things that I found there to be insufficient language. And so to have gone through the experience of grad school and everything that happened before grad school, trying to figure out the voice that I have within my artistic practice and to find that and then be able to have such a broad audience has just been interesting because it allows for me to have more conversations with people and find similarities amongst very different cultural or individual narratives. To find the sort of common ground is something that I find really rewarding with making art, looking at art and experiencing other people who make art. I think that’s just been really wonderful.
And then it’s always just a matter of as an artist, you want to always be taking risks and experimenting and pushing yourself. It’s something that you have to have a pretty good foundation of knowing what’s important to your practice and what’s at stake with it. As soon as you have a lot of eyes on it, if you don’t have that, it can be really intimidating to really take those risks and know where to give and where to really hold your ground with what’s important to your practice. So I do feel like I luckily had many, many years and decades where nobody looked at the work that I’ve made. I think that was really important to foster this sort of stability, but also the flexibility of my visual language as far as what’s coming up next.
I’m taking a little rest after this show because I’m telling you, I’ve had four solo shows in about 13 months and my daughter to take care of, too. So, I’m going to take a little break and kind of get back to that place of experimentation that can happen when nobody’s looking at you. But then I have a show next summer at GL Strand in Copenhagen.
I also just had a piece of mine included in the “Dreaming of Home” show that just opened at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York. It’s about these queer notions of home centred around the Capitol Bay piece, where there’s a carving of a child’s drawing of home on the artist’s back. To be included in a show like that, this idea of home and location and domesticity, but within a queer context and very 2023 context, is exciting. So, group shows are also something always on the horizon for me.
Christina Quarles (b. 1985) is a Los Angeles-based artist, whose practice works to dismantle and question assumptions and ingrained beliefs surrounding identity and the human figure. Born in Chicago and raised by her mother in Los Angeles, Quarles took art classes from an early age. She developed a solid foundation for a lifelong drawing practice through after-school programs and figure drawing classes at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
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