The first thing I noticed when Christina Quarles opened the door for a studio visit was her face—round, inviting, with light and freckled skin, dark and piercing eyes. I extended my hand in greeting, enacting a dynamic that the Los Angeles–based artist explores in her paintings: though she sees faces as central to how we conceive other people as beings with unified bodies, she suggests we experience our own bodies largely through our appendages, a fragmented and abstracted view of ourselves.
The bodies in Quarles’s paintings—always entangled or embracing, often nude but multicolored—never feel whole, even when a viewer can trace which limbs belong to which torso. Laid Down Beside Yew (2019) depicts a tangle of bodies emerging from two planes: one patterned like a tartan blanket, the other an ambiguous green oblong shape. Three faces are present, but devoid of details; what holds the focus is a ravel of arms and legs. Quarles’s prioritization of these appendages, in this painting and elsewhere, hints at an internalized consciousness rather than an external one. The figures are defined largely by their limbs: the doers of the body, drivers of action, implements for intimacy.
Across Quarles’s oeuvre, hands blur and repeat to suggest animated motion (as in O Holy Nite, 2021), legs dangle with liquid limpness (By Tha Skin of Our Tooth, 2019), and limbs seem to twist through space like creaturely tentacles (A Little Fall of Rain, 2020). Her figures are rarely painted like those of Joan Semmel or Luchita Hurtado, whose views are clearly from the perspective of the artists looking down at their own bodies, in emphatically corporeal self-portraiture. Quarles’s bodies are other. “The poses and the figuration are always from this muscle memory of looking and drawing other bodies,” the artist told me.
Yet her images portray others as we see ourselves; they are portraits of living within a body. Even when Quarles includes faces, they are often obscured by hands or masks, or they disappear into nothingness, lack distinguishing features, or melt into a meaty mess. Quarles avoids giving viewers the access they are most accustomed to: a clear reading of a face that conveys a person’s identity and emotional tenor.
Quarles’s own body informs the figures she paints, but only to a point. “Many of the marks and decisions are based on a one-to-one scale with my body,” she explained. “The length of a gesture is the length of my wingspan. Any sense of self-portraiture is related to scale.”
While in the process of painting, Quarles plays with images of her works in progress on a computer, using the trackpad to change the scale of her gestures and consider different compositional options. In this digital stage of her work, she often introduces intricate patterns and precise shapes that contrast with her looser figurative style, like the planes—one patterned like a quilt, the other like stained glass—in Bless tha Nightn’gale (2019).
Quarles describes this process as a state of constant zigzagging; the same phrase could describe the overlapping and sometimes contradictory narratives and tones within each piece. In Yer Tha Sun in my Mourning Babe (2017), a figure lounges on what might be a beach towel, face framed by hands, propped up on elbows. A swath of blue and white along the top of the canvas suggests the glimmer of distant water or sky. The figure seems to yawn in the heat. With its downturned mouth, though, the face comes to resemble a Munchian scream, and the pleasant summery scene devolves into something more disconcerting.
A second figure, less apparent at first, emerges with its dark gray arm wrapping around the main figure’s leg. The complications within the painting—between tender love and horrifying possession, sun-soaked indolence and hysterical grief, even the titular word “mourning” and its homonym “morning”—undermine any single read. As with all of Quarles’s work, the longer you look, the more complex and ambivalent the image becomes. These are not, or not only, scenes of intimacy or self-examination: they also contain shades of violence, revulsion, and self-doubt.
Quarles was born in Chicago in 1985 to a Black father and a white mother, and her fascination with self-perception started in early childhood, when she realized that the way others saw her body was not how she understood herself. “To me, that comes largely from being in a multi-racial body that’s usually seen as white, especially by white people,” she said, “and then, on top of that, being in a queer body.”
Quarles moved to Los Angeles when she was young and grew up near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which she visited often. One of the paintings that stuck with her was David Hockney’s Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio (1980). She marveled at how Hockney could paint something very recognizable—the city’s iconic hills and winding drives—yet do it through abstracted patterns and fantastical color.
In her undergraduate studies at Hampshire College, in western Massachusetts, Quarles explored bodily perception through the lens of critical race theory. Later, at the Yale School of Art, she began conveying her interest in bodies and identity through figurative art. She wanted to be “very clear and direct about ambiguity,” she said, but she hadn’t figured out how. A revelation came during a lecture by painter Jack Whitten, when she saw how acrylic paint could take on the appearance of collage.
Professors tried to dissuade her from figurative work, which in the 2010s was mostly out of fashion. But she was undeterred. Now, with figuration all the rage—and particularly queer figuration that tends toward bodily abstraction and ambiguity—Quarles has garnered interest that led to gallery representation by Hauser & Wirth and Pilar Corrias, as well as institutional accolades, including a survey show that just opened at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.
Where many of her contemporaries in queer figuration—Doron Langberg, Kylie Manning, Salman Toor—paint bodies and their intimacies like delicate gossamer, Quarles paints hers in a weighted, freighted, burdensome form. Quarles evokes Surrealists like Roberto Matta and André Masson at their most grotesquely figurative. Some paintings border on meaty Francis Bacon-esque sexual horror, like New Moon (2021), in which a stack of enmeshed bodies reaches out to yank another out of a threshold. Quarles’s approach emphasizes an ongoing process of formation, maintaining the mystery of the atomized self.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had Quarles rethinking the way she views bodies. After all, her practice evolved from the idea that we view others through their faces: a socially distanced, masked society upends that mode of perceiving not only other people, but also ourselves and the world through which we all move. She’s still working through how these last few years have impacted her formal and aesthetic choices. But as her paintings and installations grow more elaborate—the planes and figures, patterns and textures mingling in ever more complex ways—one thing will, I imagine, remain the same, for Quarles is definitive about this, if about little else in her work: “There’s nothing to imply a straight-forward narrative.”