Nathaniel Mary Quinn: Family Portraits

Salon 94, September 07, 2018–November 03, 2018

“D” (2018) oil paint, paint stick, oil pastel, gouache on linen canvas

There is so much manipulated or copied photographic content in the galleries these days that I’ve begun to ignore it. I have even begun to wonder if artists are so happy in their studios sifting through the internet that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave might apply to them:

“Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.” *

However, there are exceptions (I remind myself) and I think Quinn might be one of those. D was the first to capture my attention. The intensity of the eye on the right, which is fierce and alive compared to the bleary eye on the left, drugged or beaten physically and/or emotionally: I recognize that in myself and in others. The mouth might be defiant but it might also be smiling and the body— so relatively small. Corny to say but I felt admiration and pity—for the human condition.

For Quinn there is a real reason to use photographic images in the way that he does. Quinn’s mother died when he was fifteen years old and his father and brothers moved— abandoning him completely.

Using an old photo album, magazine clippings and his memory, he has set out to recreate his family—out of spare parts. Some parts can’t be remembered; there are colored bits of paper that stand in for them. There are other portraits too, his neighbors and…well, that’s what we do, the people who don’t have much family, we create one.

How else could he do it? I mean with time our memories dim or perhaps never took that good of a mental picture to begin with and we never even know when we are supposed to take a good last look, right? A police sketch artist might present us with a series of noses, eyes and lips and it would be easier to choose between them than to draw it ourselves. Perhaps those sketch artists ought to take on a wider mission; it’s not only criminals that we need a picture of.

I often see fragments of lost friends and relatives in photographs or walking down the street or in the people I meet who might be surprised by my immediate friendliness towards them. I might add here— though perhaps you will disagree with me and please write a letter if you do— those recognized fragments occur in people of races different from my own, a gesture, a look in the eye, the shape of a mouth. I didn’t recognize my lost ones in Quinn’s work but I did recognize the longing for them.

The Conversation” (2018) oil paint, paint stick, oil pastel, gouache on linen, 36” × 36

Two boys or one boy at different ages, a piece of a curtain: pajamas or a blanket? Where was the photograph taken, at the beach, did we go to the beach? The boy on the right is wearing a kind of mask, I think.
Quinn’s work has been compared to Francis Bacon’s. I don’t see that.
Bacon’s portraits are painted from life and capture movement; they have a cubist sense: a single viewpoint is left behind. Quinn’s portraits are still, trying to capture even a single viewpoint.

Why did he paint them instead of leaving them as a collage? Usually I don’t see the point of that, but in this case I do; it brings the artist closer to his subject, and gives them more time together.


“Night Model” (2018)

Night Model is such a sad painting. I feel that I am looking at someone important to me and she is looking at me. She can’t help me, nor can I help her; we both have our strengths and our weaknesses and that is understood between us.

Malcolm Morley had terrible childhood experiences, being sent away during the London Blitz, his home being destroyed and spending some teenage years in prison. He said, “I [feel] very sorry for artists that haven’t had much happen in their early life.” ** He wouldn’t feel sorry for Quinn—not in that sense at least. Or for me either for that matter.
(See a link below to a fuller description of Quinn’s childhood.)

I emphatically disagree that a miserable childhood is helpful to anyone, but I love the humor and bravado of Morley’s statement. Perhaps Quinn would, too.