UC Berkeley Art Museum and
Pacific Film Archive
Christina Quarles: Matrix 271
September 19—November 18, 2018

Christina Quarles’ large-scale figure paintings offer beguiling new ways of portraying difference, frequently pushing the limits of representation. Such ambiguity, however, offers a persuasive visual correlative to the messy and often dissociative experience of living in a body that will invariably be read, and mis-read, by others. The Matrix 271 exhibition consisted of six acrylic paintings made during the last two years and three new ones. All nine canvases depict arrangements of two, and sometimes more, elongated human figures, embracing or intertwining around one another like eels in a basket, amidst sherbet-colored landscapes that disintegrate around them. The occasional curve of a breast or haunch suggest the female form, but the gender of Quarles’ subjects is implicit, a secondary concern. Quarles seems more interested in, say, their hands. Her figures’ appendages are extraordinary neo-Mannerist tributes, their fingers splayed open like spider mums and delicately outlined in black, whereas a wash of gray or tangerine is frequently enough to suggest the rest of a body. This toggling between transparency and substance is a hallmark of Quarles’ brushwork, and carries over into the liminal spaces these bodies occupy.



Quarles has terraformed the vibrant palettes and picturesque vistas of David Hockney’s ’60s poolside patios into rectangles of pattern or shape that jut perpendicularly from the picture plane like stage flats, destabilizing distinctions between exterior and interior space: sunsets appear on billboards, plantings become wallpaper. But for all their vibrancy and play of surfaces, Quarles’ paintings are suffused with melancholy; titles such as “June Gloom” (2017) or “Are Hands, Are Tied (Our Hands, We Tried)” (2018) are certainly suggestive in this regard. The summertime sadness is a burden carried by the figures within them, discernable in their slumped shoulders and splayed limbs. The ambiguity of their embraces suggest eroticism can be as much a matter of holding space for a shared solace as it is of sex itself. Quarles has spoken of how tiring it can be to have to continually negotiate being seen as black and queer. Exhaustion becomes a symptom of the larger violence of living under prevailing regimes of gender and race — an exhaustion that is both psychic and physical. Quarles’ paintings, despite their initial slipperiness and dazzling technique, quite clearly depict this hidden cost attendant to the burden of being visible. 

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