Christina Quarles: the next contemporary art classic?

At just 37, Christina Quarles has created a profoundly unique visual vocabulary that renews contemporary figurative painting. Obsessed by the themes of identity and how we inhabit our bodies, the American artist represents complex and intertwined figures in split spaces. Her works are living methaphors of how it feels for a non-binary and colored individuals to live in America today. And yet, her groundbreaking aesthetic cannot be reduced to these subjects. Quarles’ colorful compositions evoke some of the greatest moments in the history of painting, from Egon Schiele to David Hockney and Albert Oehlen, while following their own novel path. Among the new generation of artists who are currently reigning on the market, Christina Quarles is one of the few whom we firmly believe will go down in history.

A view of Quarles' first solo gallery show in 2017

Christina Quarles was raised by a single mother in Chicago then Los Angeles. She soon manifested remarkable skills in drawing and attended numerous after-class art programs. When she was 12, she went to a figure-drawing course where she fell in love with representing live models, a practice that would later have an important influence on her painted works.

She kept drawing during her teenage years and attended art school in Los Angeles before moving to New Hampshire to study art at university in 2007. A few years later, she graduated from the prestigious Yale MFA program in 2016, a period during which she was still seeing herself mainly as “somebody who made drawings” according to her own words.


A recent master work from 2020

The artist started painting seriously in the second half of the 2010s, and it gradually took a more important place in her work. The outline of her singular style was already set at her first solo show in Los Angeles in 2017. However, her first exhibited paintings were more minimalist and included written words—the artist is an admirer of Glenn Ligon, who is known for his interest in the artistic possibilities of language. Around that time, she began to innovate in her creation process. She started her new painting with large gestural colored brush strokes while leaving large portions of the canvas untouched, before drawing body details within these colored fields. Then, Quarles used photographs of the work in progress to elaborate new geometric structures and motives on Illustrator—a well known creation software. She went on to reproduce these new elements on the canvas with stencils and paint, thus adding a digital touch to her paintings.


A recent example of digital-like spaces and motives in her paintings

This new process resulted in her first major works, which were exhibited for the first time at the Studio Museum in Harlem during a group show. The artist signed with a new gallery, Pilar Corrias, which organized her acclaimed solo show “Always Brightest Before Tha Dusk” in the United Kingdom in 2018. The latter was quickly sold out during Frieze London the same year and broke the artist onto the international art scene. This remarkable trajectory was also enabled by the artist’s conceptual interest in bruning social issues.

Christina Quarles was born to a white mother and a black father who chose to label her as “white” on her birth certificate. The decision was supposed to help her better integrate in American society. A few decades later, it turned out to have a major influence on the artist’s questioning on race identity. Indeed, because of her fair skin, Quarles claims that she is “constantly being misread as just being white—usually by white people”. This contradiction between how society sees her and the reality of her own experience as a black and queer woman has become her main artistic subject. Indeed, in both her drawings and paintings, Quarles represents gender-defying individuals whose bodies are heavily merged and deformed, which is a symbol for fluidity between conflicting identities.


An exhibition view from Quarles' last gallery show with Pilar Corrias in London

This $685,000 painting from 2016 is her auction record

Back in 2018, the artist made her auction debut at Phillips New York, where one of her paintings from 2017 was acquired for a skyrocketing $225,000. Since then, her market never ceased growing and even reached new highs in 2021 a few months after the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth officially announced the representation of the artist. Indeed, An older work from 2016 was acquired for a whopping $685,000 at Sotheby’s New York in November. Unlike some of her most sought-after peers from the new generation, only a handful of interesting pieces have come to auction yet. Out of her seven auctioned paintings, only one is a large canvas bigger than 130 cm. Given her already outstanding prices, it is very likely that the next major painting to be sold will set a new record for the artist. In the meantime, Quarles will inaugurate her first solo show with Hauser & Wirth in New York in September 2022.

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