Christina Quarles' paintings are the visual equivalent of an earworm

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Christina Quarles, For a Flaw / For a Fall / For the End, 2018 - Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
Christina Quarles, For a Flaw / For a Fall / For the End, 2018 - Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Eight large acrylic paintings reinventing the long tradition of the female nude: there’s something undeniably arresting about the pictures now on display at the South London Gallery by the 36-year-old, LA-based figurative painter Christina Quarles.

Within the art world, Quarles has been making waves for a while: included in the Whitechapel’s recent Radical Figures show, which defined the zeitgeist in contemporary painting, she has a substantial piece in the Tate (a 21st-century take on Cezanne’s Bathers, featuring a nude trapped in a hedge), and, earlier this year, was picked up by the powerful international gallery Hauser & Wirth. The show at SLG, first seen in a slightly different form at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2019 (Covid delayed the London leg, which includes eight new works on paper), epitomises her approach.

Against acres of raw canvas, in pattern-bedecked settings that are deliberately unresolved, impossibly elongated nude figures seem to be going at it hammer and tongs, like the human equivalents of a magician’s twisty balloon animals enjoying an orgy. Is this a threesome on a terrazzo patio I see before me? Ahem, what exactly is happening in the bushes over there?

No need, though, to avert your eyes: Quarles, who says that her work is about living within a body rather than looking at one, proceeds by suggestion: spasming feet and hands depicted with psychedelic candy stripes, for instance, get greater prominence than swooning, flushed faces. Indeed, Egon Schiele, a point of reference when she was growing up, is much more explicit, if not intense: both distort their figures to the point of agony, and suggest carnal passion with flashes of bright colour (in her case, a very contemporary neon pink). Matisse and Hockney are touchstones, too – though the final effect is entirely her own. Still, this isn’t a show to which I’d recommend taking the kids, unless you’d care to explain why everyone seems to be bending over backwards like a troupe of acrobats.

Christina Quarles, Let Us In Too (Tha Light), 2018 - Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
Christina Quarles, Let Us In Too (Tha Light), 2018 - Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Quarles objects to people fixating on the erotic content of her work: rather, she says, her bodies are “disorganised”, “grappling” with a “state of excess”. (They’re certainly grappling with something.) So, having set the (X-rated) scene, let me explain what I find so fascinating about these canvases: it’s the artist’s technique.

After blocking out her figures, Quarles, who once worked as a graphic designer, refines her composition on a computer, using Adobe Illustrator. She then prints off bespoke vinyl templates with which she defines sharply contoured planes of pattern, with a punchy street-art vibe: floral designs and hound’s-tooth or harlequin checks that intersect all her fluid bodies, and loosely “read” as, say, rugs or bedspreads. Moreover, her mark-making is astonishingly diverse – squiggles here, stripes there; thin washes versus thick impasto – so that, paradoxically, the pictures feel simultaneously digital and painterly. Throughout, a sense of a cool aesthetic intelligence offsets the “heat” of all those couplings.

Part of me can’t decide whether her elaborate, decidedly conceptual modus operandi is, ultimately, a bit gimmicky. Yet, I’d be lying if I said I could get her paintings out of my head. People talk about “earworms”: catchy songs that lodge themselves in the mind. For me, at least, these paintings are the visual equivalent – which isn’t necessarily the same as saying they’re great.

From June 18 until Aug 29; information: southlondongallery.org