Christina Quarles - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I’m really interested in exploring what it is to be within your own body looking out. I’ll often say that these are portraits, but they aren’t portraits of looking at a body — they’re portraits of living within your own body. So much of my work is about moments of intimacy when you can actually exist in all your contradictions and complications.”
    — Christina Quarles


    Characterised by psychedelic hues, shapeshifting figures and dissected visual planes, Christina Quarles’ works explore the abstraction of human form and the physical experience of living in a body. Situated within the traditional genre of painting, her distinct style of ambiguous figuration is unapologetically unconventional. Through fragmenting the viewer’s perception, Quarles questions the ways race, gender and sexuality intersect to form complex identities. I Can Only Feel Whut Touches Me, 2016 is an early exemplar of the artist’s oeuvre, painted during her final MFA year at the Yale School of Art.




    The present lot (detail) on the artist’s Instagram
    Photographed at Yale University, 2016


    Often inspired by or directly quoting poetry and song lyrics, the titles of Quarles’ works are integral to her practice. Almost always featuring an alternate phonetic spelling of words – such as in the current work where ‘whut’ stands in for ‘what’ – Quarles’ titles invite the viewer to multiple readings of the word or phrase, underpinned with the context of socio-political connotations of spelling. As the artist explains: ‘The language I use with the work turns into something that is completed by the imagination or a recollection. I feel that this opens the work up to the viewer’s interpretation or memory of that word, which is very specific to whomever reads it, which is what I love about incorporating language into the paintings.’ i



    Tentative Touch 

    “I only feel what touches me
    And feel in touching I can see
    A better state to be in
    Who has the right
    To question what I might do?
    In feeling I should touch the real
    And only things I feel”

    — Lyrics from Son by Jethro Tull



     Soundtrack of Son by Jethro Tull



    A sense of touch permeates the composition of I Can Only Feel Whut Touches Me, as the foreground yellow figure reaches beyond the frame of the canvas by holding out a single finger, evocative of a tentative touch. Caught in a moment of intimacy, the bathing figures on the right intertwine as they nestle within a bubbling pool of fuchsia waters, whilst a warm orange sun settles between the mountains in the background. 



    Detail of the present lot



    Playing with fixed notions of the body, Quarles’ characters are fractured, ambiguous, yet intertwined. A range of techniques are employed by the artist to illustrate each plane and area, reflecting multiple storylines. In the current work, the yellow figure’s head and feet lie beyond the frame, whilst the background figures are partially hidden under water, their limbs fragmented by the intersecting pink plane. As these figures twirl and tangle into impossible positions, Quarles brings attention to the body in relation to space, and the range of possibilities in terms of physical touch. The blurring boundaries between body, space and frame creates what the artists described as a ‘sense of multiple intimate experiences and touches’ii.



    Describing The Body Through Paint


    “I will use elements of fragmentation and containment to express the feeling I have of being within a gendered or racialised body. And trying to express that range of emotional resonance throughout any one experience or circumstance.”
    — Christina Quarles 


    Exploring the dichotomies of the self, Quarles’ paintings are derived from her personal experience living as a queer, biracial woman. Through a distinct style of ambiguous figuration, Quarles rejects singular descriptors and instead embraces multiplicity, recontextualising the traditional genre of painting with a multifaceted perspective. Comparing the edge of the canvas to the edge of a body, Quarles challenges traditional limitations and definitions: ‘The composition of the figures is largely determined by the edge of the frame which, much like the edge of the body, is a limitation that is simultaneously completely arbitrary and extremely real.’ iii



    Francis Bacon, Studies from the Human Body, 1975
    Image: © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2022. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Artwork: © 2022 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Quarles’ evocative portraits feature obscured facial features and entwined torsos and limbs, recalling the contorted and blurred aesthetic of Francis Bacon. Demonstrating painterly virtuosity, Bacon’s portraits are wrought with emotion and psychological tension, depicting the inner turmoil and deepest desires of his subjects, as seen in Studies from the Human Body. In his portrayal of the human from, Bacon utilises varying densities of paint with intersecting flat planes to anchor his composition – techniques that Quarles had also inherited.



    Left: Dorothea Tanning, On Time Off Time, 1948
    Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © 2022 The Destina Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Right: The present lot


    Juxtaposing elements of flatness and three dimensionality in her work, Quarles’ fluid portraits also recall stylistic and compositional elements of Surrealist works such as On Time Off Time by Dorothea Tanning. Painted during her time living in the desert environment of Arizona, Tanning depicts a wooden foundation of a house set against a barren landscape, with billowing smoke and flames ascending from both sides. Similar to Tanning’s example, Quarles divides her fore and background with a diagonal line from the lower left to upper right. Rectangular planes of the floor and sky are also used by both artists to reinforce this perspective.


    Looking to more contemporary female artists, both Louise Bonnet and Sarah Slappey share a focus on figuration, and utilise distorted and intertwined limbs in their portraits. Bonnet and Slappey are unapologetically bold in their arrangement of human features, yet both their works possess a vein of humour in their visual presentations, exemplified by Black Pearls II by Slappey and Bonnet’s The Swimmer.



    Left: Lot 32, Sarah Slappey, Black Pearls II, 2020
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 1 December 2022
    Estimate: HKD300,000 - 500,000

    Right: Lot 31, Louise Bonnet, The Swimmer, 2016
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 1 December 2022
    Estimate: HKD400,000 - 600,000


    Sharing a graphic design background with Quarles, Bonnet’s aesthetic is more playful as she toys with exaggeration, walking a thin line between the beautiful and the grotesque. Slappey, on the other hand, creates works that are more surreal in its execution. Slappey’s works confront the male gaze with works that are simultaneously seductive and repulsive, rejecting the limits of femininity and sharing Quarles’ endeavour on exploring what it feels like to live within a female body.



    Collector’s Digest 


    Born in Chicago in 1985, Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Christina Quarles received her BA from Hampshire College in 2007, where she studied Philosophy and Studio Art, and her MFA at Yale University.


    Multiple paintings by Quarles were exhibited at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Her concurrent solo exhibition at Hauser and Wirth New York, In 24 Days tha Sun’ll Set at 7pm, had also just closed 29 October, 2022, and was the first show with the gallery since the artist joined their programme in 2021. The gallery represents Quarles in conjunction with Pilar Corrias, London.



    Christina Quarles speaking about her works at the Venice Biennale, 2022

    Video Courtesy Illumina Film



    Quarles’ other recent solo exhibitions include: Frye Art Museum, Seattle, 2022;  The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2021; South London Gallery, 2021; X Museum, Beijing, 2021, which was the artist’s debut show in Asia; Pond Society, Shanghai, 2019 among others.


    Christina Quarles’ work is also housed in acclaimed public collections, including Centre Pompidou in Paris, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Tate Modern in London.




    Christina Quarles, quoted in Jareh Das, ‘Sitting with Discomfort: Christina Quarles Interviewed by Jareh Das’, BOMB Magazine, 21 July 2021, online

    ii  Claire Voon, ‘Christina Quarles Paints The Complicated, Intimate Moments When We Feel Like Ourselves’, Artsy, 15 April 2020, online

    iii  Christina Quarles, quoted in Diane Solway, ‘The 6 Rising Artists You Must Know In 2018’, W Magazine, 12 May 2017, online

    • Provenance

      David Castillo Gallery, Miami
      Private Collection, Miami
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Christina Quarles

      As a queer woman born to a black father and a white mother, Christina Quarles has developed a worldview defined by multiplicity. Often misrepresented as a white woman in life, Quarles creates work that confronts ideas of race, gender, and queerness. The highly expressive human forms of Quarles’s paintings hover between figuration and abstraction, paradoxically occupying both spaces at once. By incorporating the contradictions of identity into her painting, Quarles has developed an art form defined by energized formal inventiveness and semi-pictorial abstraction that has been likened to the early work of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, breathing new life into the historical legacies of their work.  

      Quarles was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1985 and was raised in Los Angeles, California. She completed her BA at Hampshire College in 2007 and earned her MFA at Yale University in 2016. Today, Quarles lives and works in Los Angeles with her wife.  

      View More Works


I Can Only Feel Whut Touches Me

signed and dated 'Christina Quarles 2016' on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
195.6 x 243.8 cm. (77 x 95 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

HK$900,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for HK$2,772,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022