Christina Quarles Plays with Space, Proportions and Perspective

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the artist presents a suite of paintings in close dialogue with the architecture of the exhibition space

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BY Sylvie Fortin in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 02 JUL 21

Christina Quarles’s paintings take pleasure in rendering the broad spectrum of thoughts, emotions and sensations available to the body – feeling inside out and upside down, everywhere and nowhere, played and splayed out. Quarles’s current solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, extends the logic of her paintings to the exhibition space by subtly (yet decisively) nestling an antechamber into it. A temporary, floor-to-ceiling partition occupies the centre of this new space. It also hides and prefaces an oddly scaled, arched passage leading back into the larger gallery. Echoing the planes that cut against Quarles’s multivalent figures in all manners and from every angle, this wall inflects our movements.

Christina Quarles, Underneath It All, 2019. © Christina Quarles Courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London
Christina Quarles, Underneath It All, 2019, © Christina Quarles. Courtesy: the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

It also presents the painting Underneath It All (2019) – titled after a 2001 song by No Doubt – in which a figure’s feet inch upwards, bracing variedly translucent parallel planes of matter that rest on (or cut across) its lower abdomen. Raw canvas edges three of the painting’s borders, casting the figure against an indeterminate yet capacious ground and rebutting the frame’s power to define or confine. As in all of Quarles’s works, there is plenty of elbowroom here for her figures to limn their own space as they straddle, stretch, split, bend, fold, twist, wrap, cradle and carry – enough to draft a grammar of becoming.

The arched passage – which jars with the museum’s modernist galleries – frames our initial view of Quarles’s sublime painting Don’t They Know? It’s the End of tha World (2020), anticipating the work’s two elaborately painted, arched windows. Intricately barred, these bays open and close off planes that jostle figures and ground against raw canvas. Meanwhile, an encroaching purple border, monochrome and opaque, tilts the image, dizzyingly cutting the ground from under the figures’ feet. Turning around to steady our step, we cast our gaze back through the arch, into the first room. Suddenly, Change Comin’ Round Tha Bend (Right Round/Right Round) (2019) transforms: in front of the dark green hedge archway, the lively green stems turn into vertical bars, their flowers into a gate’s ornamental scrolls.

Christina Quarles, Change Comin' Round Tha Bend (Right Round, Right Round), 2019. © Christina Quarles Courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London
Christina Quarles, Change Comin' Round Tha Bend (Right Round, Right Round), 2019, © Christina Quarles. Courtesy: the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

Two gestures dominate the larger space. A hot-pink wall underwrites the first: a centripetal, text-intensive triptych titled Never Believe It’s Not So (Never Believe / It’s Not So) (2019). This wall also hosts eleven drawings (2019–20) that index Quarles’s use of text. Contrapuntal like its title, Never Believe It’s Not So (Never Believe / It’s Not So) is installed across three, custom-built, freestanding, temporary walls that invite us to step into the work’s illusionistic space while effervescently scribbled text, camouflaged against the painting’s red and white vertical bands, resounds in our heads. These structures’ other three faces remain blank – white monochrome planes literally carving our views – choreographing our encounters with the work within the space and yielding in(de)finite pleasures. Take, for example, the way in which When It’ll Dawn on Us, Then Will It Dawn on Us (2018) emerges exquisitely in the distance, when our wandering eye causes two of these structures to part. A veritable forcefield, Quarles’s triptych holds a constellation of bodies in multiple relations.

Christina Quarles, When It'll Dawn on Us, Then Will It Dawn on Us, 2018. © Christina Quarles Courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London
Christina Quarles, When It'll Dawn on Us, Then Will It Dawn on Us, 2018, © Christina Quarles Courtesy: the artist, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

The second gesture underscores the exhibition’s exit, which, of course, is another entrance. The paintings I Just Missed Yew and Peer Amid (Peered Amidst) (both 2019) flank this transit space, troubling it with depictions of bodies sheltered and sequestered by fences. As we leave, Quarles’s figures stay with us. They are etched in our minds and nestled in our muscle memory. Politics is often deemed a spatial practice; Quarles’s paintings flesh out this dictum.

'Christina Quarles' is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, through 5 September 2021.

Main image: 'Christina Quarles', 2021, exhibtion view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Courtesy: the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; photography: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Sylvie Fortin is an independent curator, researcher, critic and editor.

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