Entering Christina Quarles’ first European exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, the viewer is greeted with a number of large-scale paintings and an architectural intervention, which includes a window revealing further works. Quarles’ arresting paintings depict female bodies that stretch, contort and intertwine. They are ambiguous and only barely legible as bodies, found somewhere in the liminal space between depiction and abstraction.
Quarles’ figures have not been painted from a specific subject, but instead derive from the American artist’s perspective on being a living body within the world. The most detailed of Quarles’ works focuses upon extremities, the hands and feet, while faces are often obscure and blurry. The paintings stem from Quarles’ subjective point of view as a queer, cis-gender woman of colour, whose fair skin has meant she is often mistaken as white, highlighting the socio-historical realities surrounding cultural legitimacy and passing within groups that one doesn’t associate with. Quarles’ painted bodies resist any standardised form of representation. The application of paint mirrors the notion of subjective identity – both unfixed and in flux between creation and reconstruction.
Quarles utilises the many languages of paint, from heavy impasto and stencilled patterns to washes, and succeeds in creating her own creative vocabulary. Whilst leaving a majority of surface as raw canvas, Quarles builds up figures through varying brushwork which produces differing levels of legibility, weaving between moments of abstract making to precise rendering. Quarles’ canvases are often interrupted by patterned sections that create multiple planes and perspectives; these are developed after the initial painting of the figures using digital software to manipulate the composition. Planes have different architectural qualities in Quarles’ hands, as surfaces for the bodies to rest upon and disruptions that splice through the figures with a graphic quality.
Running in tandem with Quarles’ exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield is a display of early works by David Hockney and Alan Davie. All three artists share a common approach to painting, creating languages through abstracted bodies, coded symbolic texts, abstract painterly expressions and the use of raw canvas. Quarles’ work can be understood through its relation to Hockney and Davie as each artist has explored their own identity through their artwork, responding to urgencies of their time. Specifically, Hockney and Davie in the context of the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 in the UK (both being gay men) and Quarles’ reaction to contemporary issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality.
Quarles’ work is catalysed by personal circumstances and represents a grappling with multiple identities through which she has had to question what is legitimate in relation to Western “norms”. The exhibition gives space to the viewer to become aware of their own body, allowing reflection on one’s own identity and to question the specific set of conditions that fostered their place within the world.