“Los Angeles–based artist Christina Quarles paints ambiguous figures who stretch, intertwine, and merge in and with their surroundings, their bodies subjected not only to the weight and gravity of the physical world, but also to the pleasures and pressures of the social realm.” That is the greeting I received when entering the exhibit at the Frye Art Museum, the one that prepared me very little for what I was about to experience—which is the point, I realized, because what I experienced was a transcendence from my own self, and my world became acrylic, and colorful, and full of grief.
Quarles possesses the ability to turn her experience of the world—and herself—into a language that is both exciting and excruciating. It is a language that pushes back: against social conventions, against the way the world defines identity, against meaning itself. She paints things that are too complex to put into words, that you can feel but not name. I spent a lot of time standing there in a big white room, staring, looking for words that did not want to be found, because they would only tarnish what was in front of me.
“Fixed categories of identity can be used to marginalize but, paradoxically, can be used by the marginalized to gain visibility and political power,” Quarles says of her own work. Remaining intentionally ambiguous in how a viewer is supposed to read her paintings, she is able to continuously bulldoze and defy the barriers put into place by categorization, and from there transform her figures into entirely new states of being—states that are outside of our fixed and limiting views of race, gender, sexuality, and more.
Through the use of large brushstrokes and architecture, and the destabilization of depth and structure, the pieces become simple in a way that is anything but. By challenging the fundamentals of space and existence, the life of the mind and the life of the body are able to coincide, and something very intimate is pushed to the foreground. It was as if everything I have ever been, and Quarles has ever been, and anyone has ever been all come together to take communion, breaking bread over the intimacies of our griefs.
As I worked my way down the halls and around the corners of the exhibit, I felt more and more like static. I no longer had a body, moving effortlessly, instead, through knotted limbs and colors and old neuroses come to visit. I wanted to stay in the room at the end, the one full of stripes and tricks and lies, and make love to my own imperfections in the same dark corner where other patrons seemed to gather at the end, unwilling to return to themselves.
The Christina Quarles exhibit will last through June 5. Admission to the Frye Art Museum is free, and you can make donations to help “shine a light on local and global artists and elevate relevant issues of our time.”
Sarah is the Arts & Culture Editor and a writer for the Seattle Collegian, as well as a student of Seattle Central College, and intends to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing once finished with her BA. She has a deep fascination, bordering on obsession, with all the many things that make us human and the conditions and complexities therein, and tends to lean into these in her writing. When not buried in text or staring at the blinding light of a word processor, Sarah is enjoying films, books, and video games, as well as exploring the beauty that Washington has to offer.