Christina Quarles’ dazzling But I Woke Jus’ Tha Same transports viewers into a lush and seductive world, a world that takes viewers on a brilliantly motion filled ride with contorted figures that veer between narrative and abstract. We struggle to understand the image, yet we intuitively know the seemingly impossible, terrible and wonderful positions relationships thrust us into.
The Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based artist creates images whose bodies speak to us in a language all their own, figures that touch upon her identification with and feelings about her mixed racial heritage and female sexuality.
Her women offer writhing ballets, physically poetic yet seething with power that’s barely contained within their grace. Their spirit is nothing short of daunting. Flowers and floors and tablecloths offer vividly patterned settings that have no boundaries. The work is all form and beauty, sinuous shapes that beckon and call.
Quarles gives us body parts and intertwined bodies, she gives us images that enchant and obfuscate, creating wholes and halves and allowing the viewers’ eyes to shift and sift between them. There is an overall feminine quality to these works, where the feminine is a survivor with infinite possibilities and the fierceness of a warrior, a claimer of space with no walls. The artist demands the viewer do a bit of work with the unraveling of the stories she depicts, with the weavings of body she has created.
There are strong elements of the erotic in these paintings and drawings; they are provocative, charged and fresh; they demand our attention. Inherently filled with struggle, with a grappling for pleasure, meaning, love, and pain, their overall visual look is nonetheless of something blossoming, growing — women themselves, perhaps. It is echoed in the floral images in some of the works, and in the supple plant-in-the-wind positions of arms, legs, and torsos.
There may well be a double-edged sword here of pleasure and pain in these works, but it seems no matter which side of that blade on which a woman balances, her power will save her or destroy her. The style of Quarles’ work is filled with a fluid rhythm and poise. There are echoes that evoke Picasso and Fernand Leger. Her style flows and throbs, creating an almost physical tension with the viewer.
In the large-scale acrylic work “An Absence the Size of Yew,” a nude woman stretches, bends like a flower in the wind, against a backdrop that is floral and boldly patterned; beneath her another pattern vibrates like dark wind-ruffled water into which this woman might dive. Behind her a plaid object of clothing, seemingly discarded, evokes a bra. Her elongated arms stretch backwards, hands dangling loosely, as if they too have been discarded. The position is impossible and brave, she is stretched on a rack of her own creation. In the center of the canvas it is all pattern, the central image that of a flower that is dead white and without detail — the “absence.” The woman can be seen as torturously pulling herself around or framing a memory of a missing person, or a missing part of her own heart and soul.
Quarles’ “I Just Missed Yew,” gives us two figures, one supine yet barely balanced on the top of a wall, the other beneath that wall, a jumble of almost connected body parts. The white and brown stones almost dominate the image, filling in the space between the two figures. The woman on the upper ledge, legs hanging down, with Cleopatra-like gold hair, is stepping down on the beseeching body of another female figure, who appears to have a mix of sinews, bones, and organs exposed. This subjugated figure, one rainbow-colored arm raised as if in a final death-throe of loss and longing, is the stricken polar-opposite of the woman on the wall, languidly trailing a scarf from her hands as she crushes and abandons the other. Is the stepped-on-being a lover abandoned or a part of herself now disregarded? Are they one and the same? There is agony and a calm, dominating ecstasy, here. There is also a mysterious blue-ish shadowed rectangle that seems to bisect the image, presenting a kind of translucent shadow doorway in the midsection of the wall. That rectangle gives the overall piece the quality of a dream, providing a portal of sorts through which the viewer and the two figures could emerge or retreat.
In “Wrapped Up, Nicely,” viewers get an image that appears to be all ecstatic coupling. Two women are positioned on a bright yellow and black tiled floor. On the right side of the image, a beautiful, bubble enclosed fantasy of orange flowers is suspended, the delicate loveliness a contrast to the passionate, dissected embrace.
The two central figures, one brown skinned, one pink and white, could be two lovers, or they could be two halves of the same woman — perhaps Quarles herself, grappling with her racial identity. The brown skinned woman appears to be reaching up, holding on, pulling the other to her or perhaps into her. The elongated feet and hands on both women are elegant and distorted, stretching, reaching, beseeching, as so many of the artist’s depictions of these appendages appear.
The boldness of Quarles’ backgrounds, and indeed the vibrant if softer colors of her figures in these acrylic works make a visceral physical contrast with the delicate, almost ethereal ink drawings in the exhibition. But the physical look of these drawings is almost a red herring: these images are no gentler in their message.
In “Love is…” lines of text that read “love is never having to say you’re sorry” with a shorter line beneath it “sorry not sorry,” serve as a rope on which reaching arms are pulled by the enlarged hand of one of two ravenously embracing figures. The ties that bind indeed.
More complex are the figures in “I Don’ Wanna Be Funny Anymore.” Here a man is lying on his back, knees upended. By his head are the words “Trouble ahead,” and by his raised knees, “Trouble behind,” while the title of the piece is flung like a banner across his abdomen. To the left of him are two women, one dressed in a floral gown; the other nude, in a contorted but graceful pose, with the clothed woman seemingly frowning, looking away from the nude figure bent over her. Shadows fall from their hands, with what appear to be extra shadows of hands reaching up from the hem of the dress. As with so many of Quarles’ images, there’s a raw longing here, and a power dynamic in play.
In her drawings, Quarles’ text additions frequently reference current cultural idioms. They’re often humorous or have twinned meanings, and an extra element of both pleasure and irony for the viewer. All the work here is wholly original, brilliantly subversive; a strange dream from which the artist may have “woke just the same,” but from which viewers emerge changed — in visual perspective, in the way that we look at other people, other bodies, and how we link ourselves to others, including the “other” inside us.
Overall, what Quarles does with this exhibition is invite us in — to her world, to a new way to look at ours, to an uncomfortable, shifting, and voluptuous spirit in motion that seems to have few boundaries and great promise.