EXPLORING THE INTERSECTION of reality, memory, and perception, Nathaniel Mary Quinn paints composite portraits that read as collage. In actuality, they are produced with oil paint, gouache, charcoal, oil stick, and pastels in his own hand. He has said his fragmented and visually layered portraits are based on the faces of people he has known—family members, neighbors from his old community, childhood friends, and street hustlers.
The Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based artist discussed his work in an interview with Anderson Cooper. The CNN anchor asked if Quinn makes collages as studies for his paintings. Quinn said: “I’ll tape things up to the wall of my studio, images I’m inspired by. But my paintings come to me as visions.”
Their conversation was published in the fall edition of Gagosian Quarterly, coinciding with Quinn’s first exhibition with Gagosian. He joined the gallery in April and the show, “Nathaniel Mary Quinn: Hollow and Cut,” opened at Gagosian Beverly Hills on Sept. 11.
Quinn is presenting new paintings, a horizontal diptych called “Jekyll and Hyde” (2019), and what he terms “enhanced performance” drawings—small-scale works on paper, rendered in charcoal, using both of his hands simultaneously, with “enhanced” improvisational strokes of gouache and soft pastels.
A portrait Quinn made of Larry Gagosian appears in the fall 2019 issue of GQ Style magazine, alongside a rare interview with the dealer. The improvisational strokes of color that embellish the likeness are recognizable, but the portrait is a departure from Quinn’s signature style in which dramatically imagined images, defined by creatively arranged facial features, express the complexity of his subjects.
I’ll tape things up to the wall of my studio, images I’m inspired by. But my paintings come to me as visions.”
— Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Quinn has previously discussed his own complexity and formative experiences in interviews and an essay he wrote for British Vogue. Given this, the broad outlines and determining moments of his childhood years are familiar, but no less heartbreaking and, frankly, impressive, given where he has landed.
He grew up in the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes, the notorious Chicago public housing project and in high school earned a scholarship to attend Culver Military Academy, a boarding school in rural Indiana. He was away from home less than one month when he learned his mother had died. Devastated, he attended the funeral, returned to school, and then visited Chicago for Thanksgiving only to find his father and four brothers had left. Their apartment was vacant and there was no trace of his family or their belongings other than a few stray items left behind.
Abandoned, Quinn went back to school determined to get a good education, convinced it was the only way to avoid homelessness. When he it was time to graduate, he was asked how he would like his name to appear on his high school diploma. He added his mother’s name to his own: Nathaniel “Mary” Quinn.
Cooper reviewed this terrain with Quinn and also got him to talk about much more, including his visionary paintings, the X-Men, and the irony that it was his brother Charles and his father who first recognized and encouraged his artistic talent. A few brief excerpts follow:
ANDERSON COOPER: You talk about having visions. What does that actually mean? Do the paintings come to you in a flash?
NATHANIEL MARY QUINN: Sometimes it starts with a feeling. The paintings I’m working on now are all based on people in my community, my interactions with them. People share stories with me, tell me about their lives. Some of the guys have been in jail. You need to have a high level of empathy so that you can really feel what they’re conveying. For me, that’s the pathway to their internalized world.
I’ll get a vision of a completed work, I’ll see it in front of me. Or it’s a series of images that build up in my mind.
COOPER: So how did you start making art?
QUINN: I remember drawing on the walls of the apartment and my mom would spank me for it. Then one day Charles—now this is according to what he explained to me later on—told my mother to stop spanking me and look at what I was doing.
COOPER: Who recognized that talent? Because for high school you got a scholarship to a military academy, starting in ninth grade.
QUINN: My father was my first art teacher. Here was a man who could not read or write, by the way, but every weekend he would sit me at the kitchen table and we would draw together. He would rip up shopping bags to use as drawing paper. Then we’d take out comic books and try to draw the characters for ourselves. My father was the person who taught me “Your arm is your tool. Don’t draw with your wrist. Use the whole arm.” I think he saw some innate ability in me and was doing his best to hone it. He would break the erasers off the ends of my pencils and say, “Every mark you make, you will make it count.”
X-Men are Black Folks
COOPER: I loved the X-Men. And I think it’s interesting how often comic books show up in contemporary art to this day.…
QUINN: …The comic books allowed us to live vicariously through these characters. As I grew older, I learned how comic books were also commentary on social constructs. The X-Men are mutants, and mutants—in my opinion—are black folks, a minority that the world is trying to clamp down on. The X-Men used to be called the Uncanny X-Men—what a great use of language there. And Magneto was the personification of Malcolm X, while Dr. Xavier was the personification of Dr. Martin Luther King. CT
IMAGES: Top, Nathaniel Mary Quinn. | Photo by Kyle Dorosz, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian; Cover, Detail from “Sinking” (2019) by Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2019