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Christina Quarles, Christopher Paul Jordan and Arnaldo James
The Frye Museum of Art, Seattle, Washington
Review by T.s. Flock


Christina Quarles, “When It'll Dawn on Us, Then Will It Dawn on Us,” 2018, acrylic on canvas, 77 x 96 1/8 x 2”. Courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Pilar Corrias, London

 

Continuing through June 5, 2022

 

Two concurrent exhibits provide complementary examinations of gender, history, and race. The solo exhibit of Los Angeles-based Christina Quarles provides the broadest showcase of the artist’s work to date; and the U.S. debut of a large-scale triptych/installation, “In the Interim: Ritual Ground for a Future Black Archive,” features works by artists Christopher Paul Jordan and Arnaldo James.

 

Quarles’ exhibit is a visual feast for anyone who loves painting. Working on a large scale, the artist uses an array of techniques to build complex compositions. To decipher her images on the subject of embodiment one must change focal points and piece things together towards a more complete but never definitive understanding.

 

Quarles’ experience of her own body informs the work, in part to bring recognition for women, queer and biracial people. But what it means to be in a body and face the expectations placed on it remains universal, and this is an exhibition that offers meaning for anyone.

 

The figures in Quarles’ work are generally faceless, but their impossible postures and exaggerated hands are deeply evocative of grief, uncertainty, frenzy, curiosity, resolve, of countless complex feelings. They are often rendered thinly on the canvas, amid scenery that is layered with thicker paint in glossy, opaque sheets. This technique is just one of the artists’ many tricks to keep our eyes moving and guessing. It’s also one of the ways that Quarles manages to balance abjection and sublimity in a single work.

 

We see a different balance struck in the works of Christopher Paul Jordan and Arnaldo James in “In the Interim.” Jordan paints delicately on old window and door screens salvaged from historically black neighborhoods in Tacoma, Washington, leaving a porous surface. James’ vivid color photography is presented on large, slick digital screens. Jordan’s depicts slices of rural and industrial working-class life, informed by his upbringing. James’ photos are carefully composed interpretations of otherworldly carnival archetypes, informed by life in Trinidad and Tobago.

 

Workaday lives and spiritual traditions survive together: This conversation between the artists goes beyond contrasting aesthetics and asks how diasporic peoples can rediscover shared histories and re-establish traditions of communication in the present and future, or in the physical world and that of ancestral spirits. Hence, the exhibit centers around the eponymous installation, “The Interim,” whose interior is accessible only to Black-identifying visitors. It’s a soundproof recording booth wherein participants can record predictions of the future. The recordings are stored on an encrypted hard drive, whose key will be stored in a time capsule buried on the Frye’s grounds for one hundred years. 

 

Facing the existential dread of climate change and escalating wars, the belief that there will be an audience for these predictions a century from now is itself an act of protest and hope. It is faith rooted in understanding the impossible odds and tragedies already and continually overcome by diasporic peoples.

 

Jordan pulls some digital tricks of his own. A few paintings are rendered with their colors and values inverted, so that one needs to view them through a phone with color inversion settings active in order to see the subjects appear naturally. Taken as a symbol of black-and-white binary inversion, it would be a bit pat, and it’s just plain cheeky the have the viewer look at a screen through a screen. But it also forces extra engagement, adds a little humor, and emphasizes the role of technology in the long-term project of “The Interim” — the reliance on all forms of technology and representation to create and communicate a history.

 

Between Quarles and Jordan and James, visitors get a comprehensive tour of identity, from the fraught potential of the individual body and the impositions on it, to the social reality that creates those impositions and yet may also allow us to transcend a lonely individualism. Are we the memories of the dead, or are they our memories? In the register book of eternity, does it matter?

Frye Art Museum

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