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Christina Quarles's Carnal Configurations

An exhibition at Pilar Corrias, London, shows the artist using mainstream stock and cultural quotations to depict marginalized subjectivities

A gooey melange of acrylic spews over a canvas to depict a cluster of bodies. For a Flaw/ For a Fall/ For the End (all works 2018), one of eight new paintings by Los Angeles-based Christina Quarles at Pilar Corrias, echoes the wooziness of its limping title. Swirls of candy-floss pink, bubble-gum blue and sherbet yellow feign elastic body parts in sexual and violent poses. Lips caress, fingers entwine, bosoms droop over bellies, bums and vulvas. A hand claws, a leg kicks, a shoulder tendon gapes open in the shape of a heart. Crowded into the centre of the frame, these bodies assume the artificial candour of edgy teens posing for camera, gagging for likes.

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Christina Quarles, Untitled (Intolerably, Probably), 2018, ink on paper, 33 × 48 cm. Courtey: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

The acrobatics of For a Flaw reverberate throughout ‘Always Brightest Before Tha Dusk’, Quarles’s first solo exhibition in the UK. Tangles of naked bodies dramatize moments of extreme sensuality. Mouths search nipples, hands clamp inside pelvises, lips pucker into disembodied groins. Breast, vaginas and clitorises hold sway over Quarles’s carnal configurations yet, though the subject matter of these works is flagrantly queer, the language in which they are depicted is jarringly familiar. Irregular geometric shapes float above melting backgrounds, evoking the biomorphic abstractions of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Viscous globs, translucent dribbles, and rhythmic splatters intersperse the compositions as if to quote the action-based practices of Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. And flayed limbs and slimy viscera wriggle out of Quarles’s bodies in a hasty nod to Francis Bacon and Philip Guston. Saturated with styles from the 20th-century Western canon, Quarles’s paintings sit on the palette like an overzealously mixed cocktail: momentarily acerbic with a syrupy aftertaste.

Pop references, too, flow into Quarles’s cultural quotations: lyrics from Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’, Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ and Kanye West’s ‘All Fall Down’ scrawl down the walls of the lower gallery with a diaristic staginess that feels almost as overplayed as the songs. Digital idioms add to this feeling of déjà vu, from the loud squiggles that whirl over canvases with the freedom of a cursor to the CMYK gradients that transmogrify limbs into fanciful bits of machinery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Quarles has overlaid her designs on Illustrator before painting them out on canvas, opening up the possibility that these images are, in fact, self-conscious examples of the visual excess of life on screen.  

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Christina Quarles, Bottoms Up, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 1,3 × 1,1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Using the stock of the mainstream to depict marginalized subjectivities, Quarles’s painting plays a paradoxical game. In Casually Cruel, a figure minces its limbs through a schematic patterned ground as if crushed by a visual matrix. Meanwhile in Bottoms Up, a figure holds its hand towards a lump of paint crusting on the surface as if to question its own physical existence as a work impasto. And, perhaps most conspicuously, the pop phrases and lyrics that title the works and stick to the walls of the gallery are phonetically misspelled, as if in celebration of the fluidity and malleability of the digital vernacular. Through these flickers of irony and ambivalence, Quarles’s works open onto a range of interpretations that are comfortably open and vague. ‘Always Bright Before Tha Dusk’ is colourful but dull, titillating but numbing, quick to sooth but slow to perturb. 

Christina Quarles, 'Always Brightest Before Tha Dusk' was on view at Pilar Corrias, London, from 5 until 22 September 2018.

Main image: Christina Quarles, For a Flaw/ For a Fall/ For the End (detail), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 1.4 × 2.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Mimi Chu is editorial assistant of frieze and is based in London, UK.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018
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