Nathaniel Mary Quinn

“Nothing’s Funny” at Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Nathaniel Mary Quinn spent his youth with two strikes against him. Strike one was growing up in the violent, infamous environment of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. The second occurred at age 15 when he returned home one day from school only to find that his family of four brothers and father had fled, leaving no word or forwarding address.

That is certainly an uncommon way to start an art review but it is germane to understanding the man and his art. Today, Quinn is a swiftly-rising contemporary artist. Jerry Saltz, in a 2016 article in New York magazine, named him one of eleven artists “poised to have breakout years.”

Saltz was clearly prescient. Quinn has since enjoyed shows and good press coverage in Los Angeles and New York. His work is now part of the collection at the Art Institute and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His second show at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in September sold out on opening day.

At my first entrance into the gallery, I knew nothing of his once dark  life. What I viewed was work, both brilliant in conception and technically flawless. His show of nine fragmented portraits clearly demanded one’s attention.

Quinn’s artistic toolkit for his portraits usually consists of black charcoal, soft and oil pastel, gouache, paint stick and, on occasion, the use of acrylic gold powder to striking effect, all on vellum paper. This pastiched style is a unique vision and calling card.

The artist’s practice is to paint most of his subjects straight on with a foreshortened view of head and neck. Quinn distorts the faces with a jumble of layered bodily features in the manner of collage but which, astonishingly, are all painstakingly painted. So, one subject may sport a stranger’s eye while his nose may be someone else’s flared nostrils.

This effect of disfigurement and distortion speaks of bodily and psychic damage. Yet, Quinn, a lifelong fan of comic books, also invests some subjects with superhero qualities who can set things right or simply fly away, freeing oneself from the calamities life inflicts.

Escape and salvation figure strongly in Quinn’s life. The youngest of five brothers, his devotion to school and drawing earned him a scholarship to a boarding academy in Indiana. His abandonment at 15 led to his completing studies at Wabash College and getting a master of fine arts degree from New York University.

He has not seen his family in over two decades. He now connects with them and his early life through his art. He has said, “The loss of my family, the memories of them and maybe even fantasies of what our home life could have been are things I’m still working through.”

The painting Bring Yo’ Big Teeth Ass Here!, is a ferocious homage to his mother who died soon after he left home for boarding school. Her appearance in his paintings, as well as his adopted middle name, are acts of reconnection. Portraits like Lit Match and Uncle Dope are riffs on the humor of stinging black comedians like Richard Prior, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle that he used to listen to on records with his father.

In his own way, Quinn is also delivering a brand of social commentary on the joys and travails of black urban life in America. The title of his show, “Nothing’s Funny,” employs comedy as a foil to tap into deeper themes of loss, damage, anger and, ultimately, explosive rage.

Lit Match riffs off a Prior skit but the explosion could also be symbolic of black rage. I cannot look at Uncle Dope without seeing a sad figure, weighed down by life and unfulfilled dreams. And I Wish a Muthafucka Would captures a face twisted by hate.

Many reviewers say his art depicts not just black but universal themes of humanity. Quinn speaks of the inclusiveness of his art as well. Yet, this show seems not just a family scrapbook but also an echo of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the default retort that All Lives Matter seems, to me,  a false equivalence.

Now is an auspicious moment for many contemporary black artists. Names such as Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Jennifer Packer plus those enjoying a renaissance, McArthur Binion and Gerald Williams, are all receiving major museum shows and media attention. Photographer Dawoud Bey was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.

Kavi Gupta, Binion’s dealer, has sold works to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has one in its collection.

Quinn is among that deserving group. His dramatic tale reflects a committed devotion to craft, a humanistic outlook and a transfigured life.


Tom Mullaney is Senior Editor of the New Art Examiner

Nathaniel Mary Quinn,
Bring Yo’ Big Teeth Ass Here!, 2017.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn,
Uncle Dope, 2017.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn,
I Wish a Muthafucka Would, 2017.

Nathaniel Mary Quinn,
Lit Match, 2017.


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