Christina Quarles’ second show with Pilar Corrias comes on the heels of her inclusion in the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s much-discussed Radical Figures exhibition that opened in early February and was extended until the end of August due to the pandemic. She also had a solo exhibition at the South London Gallery scheduled to open this April but it has been postponed until the spring next year, for the same reason. Yet another example of how everyone’s lives have been put in the spin cycle this year. We have all experienced the “tumbling and falling”.
The nine paintings shown here now were all made in the course of the last six months, while Quarles and her wife were locked down north of Pasadena in California. She has overlaid the gallery windows with an orange film that signals a shift of perception, but also grimly mimics the apocalyptic skies while wildfires raged across the state this summer.
A millennial, born in 1985 to a black father and white mother, Quarles is uniquely placed to express a personal and political experience of the current moment. She has often described her paintings as being about the experience of living in a body, rather than looking at one.
Though she is light-skinned herself, she feels closer to her black identity and she speaks about the ‘legibility’ of the individual in society, where one must live with the assumptions that are made on surface appearances. The struggle for racial justice this year has made it clearer than ever how deadly such assumptions can be.
Quarles has developed a painterly language in which her figures are unreadable in racial terms: attenuated limbs reach out and press against the edges of the canvas in lilacs, dove greys and peachy pinks. exaggerated fingers, like Balinese dancers’, are iridescent in rainbow stripes.
One can stand for hours trying to pick apart the tangle of body parts, attempting to reassemble a whole, where there may simply be too many limbs. The paintings might depict multiple expressions of the self, or the writhing, intertwined bodies of recalled encounters. They are fiercely erotic: narrow torsos swell softly into rounded bellies; there are powerful buttocks and tender breasts; mouths meet. Arms and legs jackknife across the picture plane with the youthful arrogance that glories in the sensual body.
All is complex, ambiguous; the compositions seem to evoke dream-states in which sequential logic has no place; states in which a succubus might visit night after night. There is a sense in which the paintings use their ambiguities to refuse ready-made narratives and carve out a space for people who have for so long been unable to write their own stories.
After drawing with paint directly onto the canvas, the compositions are photographed and developed further through Adobe Illustrator. Here Quarles enters the sampling and quotation of colour and pattern that is then translated back onto the physical canvas.
This process accounts for the way the paintings bounce the viewer’s attention back to the surface time and again, flitting between heavily painted and masked-out areas of repeating pattern to soft, soak-stained passages and back to raw canvas. There is so much going on here that it produces something like a sensory overload. These are paintings that make you work hard, but prove the limitless versatility of the medium to radically shift with the times.
Pilar Corrias, 54 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8EF. Open Monday-Saturday 11.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 21 November 2020. www.pilarcorrias.com