Sex is a lot more complicated than it’s made out to be, especially in the United States, where it has been shoehorned into two separate worlds.
The first is porn, which, lacking depth and resonance, is meant to grab the eye and not much more.
The second world is the bedroom — and the privacy that that space is supposed to provide for citizens. Here, sex is all about secret freedoms — individuals doing things we’d never dream of doing in public.
Those two worlds collide — and, more important, cross-pollinate — in Christina Quarles’ brilliant exhibition of 14 paintings and 25 drawings at Regen Projects. “But I Woke Jus’ Tha Same” is a sustained meditation on the complex ways our private desires and public identities interact with each other to shape our understanding of who we are as individuals, as communities, as a people and as a species.
Visually stunning, psychologically nuanced and socially charged, Quarles’ ferociously gorgeous exhibition gives sex a place at the table of public discussion. In one fell swoop, she takes sex out of the bedroom.
Table tops, tablecloths and picnic blankets appear in many of the L.A. painter’s large acrylics on canvas, their wildly patterned surfaces forming eye-popping platforms atop which ambidextrous figures contort, writhe and grope. Slender limbs splay every which way. Plump buttocks abound. Breasts of all shapes and sizes figure prominently. So do rib cages, faces and fingers.
Clothing is nowhere to be found. Its absence is more than made up for by the plaid, harlequin and flower patterns of Quarles’ boldly colored fabrics. Her painterly virtuosity also enlivens the stone walls, latticed fences, striped curtains, linoleum floors, dense hedges and fecund gardens that form the domestic-style settings of her orgiastic extravaganzas.
Sometimes it’s easy to see where one figure ends and another begins, their limbs tangled together in ways that make pretzels look straight.
But more often it’s impossible to know how many figures are depicted in an image. Most are bending or twisting or sprouting extra limbs, digits and heads — or missing parts altogether — so that you get lost in the labyrinth of flesh.
To intensify the sense of dissolving boundaries, Quarles has painted her polymorphous people using different techniques. Single figures are made of bare canvas, whiplash lines, watercolor-y washes, meaty brushstrokes, illusionist volumes, shaded passages and thick slabs of paint that she has carved into with the handle of her paintbrush or a common comb.
Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon come to mind, by way of Hannah Hoch, Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky. So do the pansexual pictures by Lari Pittman, Daniel Richter, Kitty Brophy, Wangechi Mutu and Lara Schnitger. The storm of references that blasts through Quarles’ paintings intensifies their forcefulness, bringing a rebellious band of radicals into the drama.
Neither segregated to the bedroom nor limited to screens and billboards, sex struts its stuff in Quarles’ art. Pleasure takes a backseat to abandon.
The scenarios she depicts unfold after the point of no return has been passed, when freedom, will and intention are overwhelmed by hunger and helplessness, when our animal appetites leave us with no option but to submit to their dominion.
It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s thrilling. And essential to the survival of the species. Civilization, too. But in the throes of the moment, that’s an afterthought.
Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through May 9. (310) 276-5424 RegenProjects.com
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