Growing up in Los Angeles as the fair-skinned daughter of a Black father and a white mother, Christina Quarles, 38, can recall the first time her sense of identity was challenged: “In elementary school, there was this book of famous Black people throughout history and my nana was in there,” she said. (Her paternal grandmother, Norma Quarles, was one of the first Black TV journalists.) “I would show the other kids that was my grandmother in the book but get told, ‘No, you’re not Black.’ It was this disconnect between how I was raised with my own personal sense of my biography, and then to be met with such resistance when I would express that to people.”
This sense of fragmentation animates her paintings, which can make an encounter with them a disorienting, albeit seductive experience. On her canvases, polymorphous, shape-shifting figures collide and intertwine; heads multiply; limbs get entangled with each other. A graduate of the fine art program at Yale that has produced some of the new vanguard in Black figuration like Tschabalala Self and Jordan Casteel, Quarles’s paintings explode the very idea of figurative painting into something more abstract, exploring how race, gender and sexuality intersect and what it means to live within a body. Working from memory and without a plan, Quarles paints in gestural brushstrokes directly onto the canvas, responding to, as she puts it, “this interplay between physical mark making and the process of looking and imagining what the next step could be, as well as a number of factors that I can’t control or anticipate.” Then she photographs the work and imports it to Adobe Illustrator — she had a brief stint as a graphic designer after completing her undergraduate degree — where she cuts up and warps the image. Then using vinyl stencils, she applies the digital patterns onto the canvas. For her, using Illustrator is “a way of bringing a sketching process halfway through the painting” and a means to direct and focus the composition of the work. It’s this tension between the digital and the analogue, the way her figures oscillate between ecstasy and pain, confinement and freedom that gives her work its power.
Quarles was born in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles with her mother at the age of 6, after her parents divorced. Quarles grew up living near the museum district during a particularly febrile time in Los Angeles that saw her racially diverse neighborhood rocked by the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial. She recalled, “As a kid, it felt like something dramatic was happening every couple of years and we would get a few days off from school.” Quarles knew she wanted to be a serious artist from an early age — she took up live figure 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 an undergraduate at Massachusetts’s Hampshire College, she studied philosophy in addition to studio art. “I wanted to explore what it was 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 stifling,” 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 couple of years: She had her largest solo institutional show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2021, she debuted at the Venice Biennale in April last year and the following month a 2019 painting by her sold for a record $4.5 million at Sotheby’s. After a show at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin earlier this year, Quarles debuted a new body of work titled “Come In From an Endless Place” at Hauser & Wirth’s Minorca outpost in June. The new show will feature large canvas paintings, fine-line drawings and in a first for Quarles, paintings on paper.
During the pandemic, Quarles worked out of the converted two-car garage behind her house in Altadena, Los Angeles, that she shares with her wife, the 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’m able to work very close to where I live, I find that is always the work that I love the most.” It was from the storefront that Quarles, dressed in an old band T-shirt, jumped on a Zoom call to answer T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s 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 used to work behind my house, I worked seven days a week, but I’ve learned that when I have a studio that I have to travel to, it’s actually really important that I take weekends off, otherwise I end up getting sick or hurting myself. I’ve been trying to figure out a balance and take breaks like going to the Huntington [Botanical] Gardens with my baby. I’ve been feeling kind of guilty because everyone else in my household knows that I’ve been on this crazy deadline. I’ve been noticing that I’ve not had to do a morning shift with my baby in a while!
What’s the worst studio you’ve ever had?
In retrospect, it’s probably the studio that I had in downtown L.A. from 2012 to 2014, right before grad school. It was so cheap, like 200 bucks a month, and I met a lot of really cool artists there and shared the studio with a friend of mine who was a great studio partner. But the problem was that it was a big, shared space with thin walls so you could hear everybody’s studio visits. We had the one space that didn’t have a window, but we got all of 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 would make me call her every few hours when I would work in there because she wanted to check I hadn’t passed out. But I also look back fondly on it, as it was my first studio.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was in 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 little canvas boards and some acrylic paint. And I made a little still life of some flowers in a Coke bottle.
What was the first piece of art that you sold, and can you remember how much you sold it for?
There was this time in high school where I had made all these little drawings on tracing paper and sold them at the craft fair for 50 bucks. And I remember feeling like 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’m never doing this again!”
And when did you feel comfortable calling yourself a professional artist?
When I was applying 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 into asking myself what I wanted to get out of grad school. And I think that that was the first moment that I said out loud, “I actually want to go to one of the best painting schools so I could be one of the best painters.” It was such an intimidating thing to say out loud in a way — it takes a lot of confidence to say I want to be a successful artist. One of the things that keeps certain marginalized groups from reaching certain pinnacles of success is there’s a constant questioning of somebody’s motives and having to justify their choices.
How many assistants do you have?
I don’t really have studio assistants. I have for several years now worked with somebody occupying a role of studio manager who’s really helpful with emails and file organizing. But I only just recently started working with somebody that helped me with making this really large installation. Because I have a baby now, I can’t be moving around these 15-by-7-foot canvases back and forth in my tiny studio.
How often do you talk to other artists?
All the time, as 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 artwork that you own that is made by someone else?
I have a piece by Tschabalala Self. It’s in our living room and I love it — it’s a really beautiful piece. In grad school we did this trade. 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’m going to give you a really good piece,” and she did. I recently bought a Catherine Opie photograph from the “Swamps” series she did in 2020 as a Christmas present for my wife.
What music do you listen to in the studio?
I listen to this one playlist that I’ve been adding music to since I did this residency in Miami in 2017 and I just keep adding to it. It’s helpful to listen to the same music over and over because it just gets 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 musicals.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
Not really — I find it very distracting to eat while I’m working so sometimes I’ll just have a protein shake. It’s very sweet — either my wife or our friend Blake who lives with us will drop off a really nice lunch at the studio — so it’s either a beautiful, nice gourmet lunch or a protein shake.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
I have so many good things. I love all the little weird trinkets in my studio. I have this little gold easel that’s about eight inches high but there are 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 a random thing out, I say, “No, I’ll put it in the studio.”
What was the last thing that made you cry?
I did get very sad recently because my daughter got sick for the first time. Everything I cry about these days 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 body of work is reflective of the changes in my practice. Having a kid is a similar experience to painting in a way. It’s like you’re taking this acquisition of knowledge that’s either passed down to you or something that you’ve read and you have this daily experience where you get to use all of those skills. You’re constantly in the moment and have to be engaged with the present. In both, there’s this beauty, miracle and wonderment of the whole experience but also folded into this ongoing routine and monotony. The main thing is that I just really love both, but there’s just not enough time in the day.
You’ve talked about starting each painting with no plan. How do you know when the work is done?
That’s hard because there are certain things that would normally determine being done or undone that don’t apply to my work because I’ll have a large area of raw canvas that’ll stay untouched and raw in the final piece. So it’s not the application of paint that determines doneness for me but, in fact, it’s about having that tension between things being rendered more fully and then less fully. It’s about having this sense of composition that’s not necessarily fully resolved or maybe it’s over resolved or maybe it’s off kilter. To determine doneness — it’s that transition between being someone who makes the work to being somebody who looks at the work. When I’m able to have my eyes and mind shift 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.