Christina Quarles

Casually Cruel


Not on display

Christina Quarles born 1985
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1960 × 2443 mm
Presented by Peter Dubens 2019


Casually Cruel is a painting in acrylic on canvas measuring almost two metres by two and a half metres by the American artist Christina Quarles. The work was made in Los Angeles in the summer of 2018 and was exhibited in Quarles’s solo exhibition at Pilar Corrias, London in September 2018. It features three figures, though these figures appear as much as collections of abstract strokes and drips of paint as legible representations of bodies. A blue plane, covered with curling green lines, stretches across the centre of the image and describes three sides of an enclosure. Above and below, areas of raw canvas appear like a floor and ceiling or sky. Two of the figures are within the enclosure, the one on the left on her knees, the one on the right standing and stretching towards the wall. The third figure appears to be outside this space, pushing into it, or trapped in the fence.

Quarles began the work by laying down various strokes and marks on the canvas. At first these were just abstract marks; the artist then began to see them as figures and added to them to create a composition. Some way through this process, Quarles photographed the composition and examined the image on a computer screen, proceeding to sketch on top of the digital image with Adobe Illustrator. The digital drawing then became the basis for adding to the composition. The blue plane and the green curves, which were painted to resemble drawing made with a computer mouse, were added to the composition.

As is the case in her paintings from 2016–18, this work intentionally reveals its materiality and construction. Quarles chose to keep much of the surface as raw canvas. She painted her figures in such a way as to draw attention to her process. For instance, the left arm of the figure to the right has been made in a single stroke of a rather dry brush, and the trail of the brush’s bristles are clear all along the contours of the arm. By contrast, the thighs and feet of the two figures to the right were painted with a loaded brush into an area already covered in wet paint, resulting in merging colours and very prominent drips that extend for around a third of the entire length of the painting. A raking tool has been used to comb through an area of yellow paint that describes the hair of the central figure. Some contours of the composition were evidently created with the use of masking tape to create an edge, whereas others are the result of freehand brushwork.

Quarles is interested in linking the construction of a painting to her understanding of the construction of identity. She identifies as a queer woman of mixed African American and white parentage, and understands identity as continually created, constructed and reconstructed. By painting figures in such a way that their material construction is so evident, and by keeping them on the border between identifiable figures and collections of paint strokes, she represents this understanding of identity. She has written:

I hope to make work that is more about what it is like to live in a body looking out at the world, rather than the experience of looking onto a body. My relationship to being half black is something I explore in these works, but rather than making paintings of what a racially multiple body looks like, I hope to make paintings that explore what living in a racially multiple body feels like. For me, it is the feeling of having my identity in constant flux, feeling my sense of self solidify and get rebuilt depending on context. And so, in these works, I utilize the fluidity of paint as well as its impasto plasticity to have forms come in and out of focus, exploring the thresholds of legibility.
(Email correspondence with Tate curator Mark Godfrey, 22 October 2018.)

These words give a sense of Quarles’s distinctive position as a painter: while others have explored identity through figurative and narrative images, or through abstraction, Quarles’s formal decisions in semi-figurative work are the ways in which she represents her experience of her different subject positions.

Prior to the exhibition at Pilar Corrias, Quarles’s paintings focused on intertwined female figures. The critic Wendy Vogel wrote in Art in America in March 2018, ‘emphatically carnal and post-Surrealist, the semi-figurative paintings of Los Angeles–based artist Christina Quarles speak to intersectional desires and anxieties. It is her unflinching depictions of intertwined queer sensuality and female abjection that distinguish her as a painter of our moment.’ (Vogel 2018, accessed 13 November 2018). Casually Cruel marks a shift from such subject matter, because it is an indirect representation of a situation which concerned Quarles during the summer of 2018, namely the incarceration and separation of migrant families at the United States border. The two figures to the right appear to be reaching for each other across and through a border, and the third figure (to the left) appears in a pose that suggests despair. Quarles has described the context in which she made the painting:

When I started working on Casually Cruel, it was the summer of 2018, while the Trump administration started separating families at the US/Mexico border. I couldn’t help but think of the hedge wall and the figures being fragmented and isolated in Casually Cruel as I was listening to the news, thinking of the long-term psychological damage this act would have, not only on these families and these young children, but on citizens like myself who are implicated by our country’s policies. I was thinking of how seemingly casual and careless the government was about something that had such significant psychological implications.
(Email correspondence with Tate curator Mark Godfrey, 22 October 2018.)

At the time she made it, Casually Cruel was Quarles’s largest work; its height enabled her to compose the painting with a standing figure, which is unusual in her work to date. The painting also marked a formal breakthrough because the blue/green section could be read as a spatial container made up of three planes of an enclosure, delineating space within and outside it, whereas previously a large patterned plane had been a more simple compositional device in her work.

Further reading
Wendy Vogel, ‘Christina Quarles: Miami’, Art in America, 1 March 2018,, accessed 13 November 2018.
Apsara DiQuinzio, Christina Quarles, Matrix 271, Berkeley Art Museum, California, 19 September–18 November 2018, unpaginated.

Mark Godfrey
November 2018

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