Growing up in Los Angeles as the light-skinned daughter of a black father and a white mother, Christina Quarles, 38, can remember the first time her sense of identity was challenged: “In elementary school, there was this book of famous black people. through the history and my little girl was there,” she said. (Her paternal grandmother, Norma Quarles, was one of the first Black TV journalists.) “I would show the other kids who my grandmother was in the book, but they would say, ‘No, you’re not Black.’ There was this disconnect between how I was raised with my own sense of my biography, and then being met with such resistance when I would express that to people.”
This sense of fragmentation animates her paintings, which can make the encounter with them a disorienting, albeit seductive, experience. On her canvases, polymorphic, shape-shifting figures collide and intertwine; heads multiply; members become entangled with each other. A graduate of the fine arts program at Yale that produced some of the new avant-garde in Black imagery such as Tschabalala Self and Jordan Casteel, Quarles’ paintings explode the very idea of figurative painting into something more abstract, exploring how race, gender and sexuality intersect and what means living inside a body. Working from memory and without a plan, Quarles paints with gestural brush strokes directly on the canvas, responding to, as she says, “this interplay between physical mark-making and the process of looking and imagining what the next step might be, as well as a number of factors, which I cannot control or foresee.” Then she photographs the work and imports it into Adobe Illustrator — she had a brief stint as a graphic designer after completing her undergraduate degree — where she cuts and distorts the image. Then, using vinyl stencils, she applies the digital stencils to the canvas. For her, using Illustrator is “a way of bringing a sketching process halfway through the painting” and a means of directing and focusing the composition of the work. It’s this tension between the digital and the analog, the way her figures oscillate between ecstasy and pain, confinement and freedom, which gives her work its power.
Quarles was born in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles with her mother at age 6, after her parents divorced. Quarles grew up living near the museum district during a particularly feverish time in Los Angeles that saw her racially diverse neighborhood rocked by the Los Angeles riots and the OJ Simpson trial. She recalled, “As a child, it felt like something dramatic would happen every other year and we’d get a few days off from school.” Quarles knew she wanted to be a serious artist from an early age – she took live drawing classes when she was 12 (a practice she continues to this day) and would later graduate from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. As a student at Massachusetts’ Hampshire College, she studied philosophy in addition to studio art. “I wanted to explore what it is to use language,” she said. In a sense, her paintings are about the difficulty for words to fully encompass her identity as a biracial, queer woman. “Representation is sometimes suffocating,” she said. “Sometimes we are censors of our own experience because we want to be able to be understood by other people. But for me, there are aspects of my identity that are too big to ignore.”
Quarles has had a whirlwind few years: She had her biggest solo institutional show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2021, she debuted at the Venice Biennale last April and the following month a 2019 painting of hers sold for a record $4.50. million at Sotheby’s. After a show at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin earlier this year, Quarles debuted a new piece titled “Enter From an Infinite Place” at Hauser & Wirth’s Menorca outpost in June. The new show will feature large canvas paintings, fine line drawings and for the first time for Quarles, paintings on paper.
During the pandemic, Quarles worked out of the converted two-car garage behind her house in Altadena, Los Angeles, which she shares with her wife, filmmaker Alyssa Polk; their 18-month-old daughter, Lucinda; and their friend (and Lucinda’s godfather) Blake Besharian. Since then, she’s moved to a 20-by-20-foot storefront a seven-minute drive away while a new studio space is being built behind the house. She says, “Any period of time when I can work very close to where I live, I find that’s always the work I love the most.” It was from the storefront that Quarles, dressed in an old band T-shirt, hopped on a Zoom call to answer T’s Artist Questionnaire.
how is your day How much do you sleep, and what is your work schedule?
I leave Mondays and Fridays for practical things, but I really try to have three full days of uninterrupted studio time where I keep 9-to-5 office hours. When I was working behind my house, I was working seven days a week, but I learned that when I have a studio that I have to travel to, it’s actually really important that I get weekends off, otherwise I get sick. or hurt myself. I tried to find a balance and take breaks like going to the Huntington [Botanical] Gardens with my baby. I felt kind of guilty because everyone else in my household knows I’m on this crazy deadline. I realized I haven’t had to do a morning shift with my baby in a long time!
What’s the worst studio you’ve ever had?
In retrospect, it’s probably the studio I had in downtown LA from 2012 to 2014, right before grad school. It was so cheap, like 200 dollars a month, and I met a lot of really cool artists there and shared the studio with my friend, who was a great studio partner. But the problem was that it was a big, common space with thin walls so you could hear everyone’s studio visits. We had the one space that didn’t have a window, but we got all the UV damage from other people’s big windows. We all called it the baked potato because it had this big silver dome and would get so hot. My wife made me call her every few hours when I was working there because she wanted to make sure I didn’t pass out. But I also look back fondly on it, because it was my first studio.
What is the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was in the third grade, I wanted to make a Christmas present for my cousin, so he said he would give me art lessons. We went to the art store and got three small canvas boards and some acrylic paint. And I made a little still life out of some flowers in a Coke bottle.
What was the first piece of art you sold, and can you remember how much you sold it for?
It was this time in high school where I made all these little drawings on wrapping paper and sold them at the craft fair for 50 bucks. And I remember feeling that it was the most demoralizing, degrading experience – people would walk past and say, “Oh, that’s not very good, is it?” I remember thinking, “God, I’ll never do that again!”
And when did you feel comfortable calling yourself a professional artist?
When I applied to grad school in 2014, I was deciding between a few different schools and one of them was Yale. And my wife really pushed me to ask myself what I wanted to get out of grad school. And I think that was the first moment when I said out loud, “I actually want to go to one of the best painting schools so I can be one of the best painters.” It was such a scary thing to say out loud in a way — it took a lot of confidence to say that I want to be a successful artist. One of the things that prevents some marginalized groups from reaching certain peaks of success is constantly questioning one’s motives and having to justify their choices.
How many helpers do you have?
I do not have studio assistants. I’ve been working with someone in a studio manager role for a few years now who is really helpful with emails and organizing files. But it was only recently that I started working with someone who helped me make this really big installation. Since I have a baby now, I can’t move these 15-by-7-foot canvases back and forth in my tiny studio.
How often do you talk to other artists?
All the time, because I’m friends with a lot of artists. I wish I had more time to do studio visits with them because that’s something that gets lost as you move forward in your career. I do miss that, and I want to prioritize visiting friends’ studios again.
What is your favorite piece of art that you own that was made by someone else?
I have a piece of Tschabalala Self. It’s in our living room and I love it — it’s a really nice piece. In grad school we did this business. I remember I had a bunch of ink drawings and she came in and took a bunch of them, but she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a really good piece,” and she did. I just bought a photo by Catherine Opie from the “Marshes” series she did in 2020 as a Christmas present for my wife.
What kind of music do you listen to in the studio?
I’ve been listening to this one playlist that I’ve been adding music to since I did this residency in Miami in 2017 and I keep adding to it. It’s good to listen to the same music over and over because it just puts you back in the same headspace and you don’t have to pay attention in the same way. And then it’s always so embarrassing to say it, but I do listen to a lot of show tunes and music stuff.
Is there a meal you eat repeatedly when you work?
Not really — I find it very distracting to eat while I’m working, so sometimes I’ll just eat a protein shake. It’s very sweet — or my wife or our friend Blake, who lives with us, will put down a really nice lunch in the studio — so it’s either a nice, nice tasty lunch or a protein shake.
What is the strangest object in your studio?
I have so many good things. I love all the little quirky trinkets in my studio. I have this gold easel that’s about eight inches tall, but there’s fake ketchup and fake mustard packets on it. I have this giant strawberry vase with a floral display in it. Every time my wife wants to throw out a random thing, I say, “No, I’m going to put it in the studio.”
What was the last thing that made you cry?
I was really sad recently because my daughter got sick for the first time. Everything I cry about today is either because it’s something emotional with my daughter or it’s something emotional with the news.
How has having a child changed your practice and how you work?
This work is reflective of the changes in my practice. Having a child is in some ways a similar experience to painting. It’s like you take this acquisition of knowledge that’s either handed down to you or something you’ve read, and you have this everyday experience where you can use all those skills. You are constantly in the moment and must be engaged with the present. In both, there is this beauty, miracle and wonder of the whole experience but also folded into this ongoing routine and monotony. The main thing is that I really love both, but there is not enough time in the day.
You talked about starting each painting without a plan. How do you know when the job is done?
That’s difficult because there are certain things that would normally determine a do or an undo that don’t apply to my work because I’ll have a large area of raw canvas that will remain untouched and raw in the final piece. So it’s not the application of paint that determines a work for me but, in fact, it’s about having that tension between things done more fully and then less fully. It’s about having this sense of a composition that’s not necessarily fully resolved or maybe it’s too resolved or maybe it’s blunt. Determining readiness is that transition between being someone who does the work to being someone who looks at the work. When I can have my eyes and mind move and move through the painting and I’m no longer trying to solve it or figure it out or add to it or subtract from it, then I’m like, OK, it’s probably done.