To quote from the American film critic Mary Haskell: “There are two cinemas: the films that we have actually seen and the memories we have of them.” How audiences connect with what they watch is a highly personal experience. We build our memories from snippets that ignite our soul in unique ways. For some it is the compelling cinematography or perhaps a riveting storyline but for the American artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn, it is character complexity that resonates deeply and which serves as the backdrop for his latest exhibition SCENES at Almine Rech in Grosvenor Hill.
On display of film and television’s most memorable personages. But it is not as simple or straightforward as portraits of favorite film characters; in fact, what Quinn delivers are not portraits at all in the traditional sense. For starters, the artist is not interested in presenting a direct visual likeness nor is he recounting a history with the synopsis, instead he pieces together a narrative, like a poet drawing on memories and reflections on what he sees and feels. The characters emerge as extensions of the artist himself and of the experiences he carries through his own complex life. Blending traditional materials like gouache, charcoal, oil paint, oil pastel, and oil stick, Quinn pulls from vulnerability, empathy, truth, and emotion to construct figures of a somewhat surreal collage-like appearance.
The show grabs you in its opening with Sunshine, a large linen canvas split by a horizon of yellow on green and dominated by the figure of a seated woman. Dressed in bold prints, she leans forward in her chair, arms resting in her lap, as if in thoughtful scrutiny, the way one does while deeply listening or watching something. Not knowing who the subject is, one feels the energy of someone strong, resolute, creative, and enigmatic. She locks eyes with you and for a moment you wonder how you know her. On learning that the work is actually of the artist’s wife, herself involved in film and television, it becomes a meaningful reflection on a driving power behind Quinn.
The artist finds meaning in his memories of fictional characters as well. In Bubba Gump a man is shown seated on a bus stop bench, box of chocolates in hand and wearing a tan suit, with blue checked shirt buttoned to the top, and a pair of well-worn Nike Cortez’s. It is almost impossible not to warmly smile in recognition of the eponymous Forrest Gump and it is in this smile that one recognizes the power of Quinn’s work. While there is nothing to be found of Tom Hank’s actual face in the piece, the innocent strength and pureness of intention that guides Gump through life’s ups and down ,and comes to define him, finds its way out from the canvas. Through his creative process Quinn grasps the energy of the individual and offers insight into the nuance and layers of lived experience which defines each and every one of us.
As with all of Quinn’s works, the process of creating Bubba Gump is similarly a process of finding an understanding of the deep emotional resonance that draws the artist in. He paints these figures as we recognize them but from within himself rather than external cues. Starting from a vision of the end destination, the decisions of what material to use and where to employ them are intuitive; they are at once separate and also one with the artist. He is a vessel connecting multiplicities and drawing us closer to a shared humanity.
This process echoes that of Francis Bacon’s whose mammoth exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year left a lasting impression on Quinn. Obvious references to Bacon are found in the warm curved horizon lines and neutral backgrounds of many of the works including that of Homelander. With Homelander, Quinn dives headfirst into the Bacon-like grotesqueness of the antagonist superhero from the Amazon Prime series The Boys. Through probing the character as he exists in the artist’s eye, he unconsciously finds the pulse that brings him to life in all of his layers. The work is an acknowledgement of the ugliness that life can hold, that each of us can hold within ourselves, of the power and subtlety which it lends to the human condition.
In the gallery text for the show, the artist says the works reflect “my enduring love for movies“ and while it is clearly obvious that Quinn is a cinephile, one might argue that SCENES rather presents an enduring love for humanity; for the passionate, flawed, complex people that it comprises. It is the unfolding of these characters, his layering of energies and emotions that allow for a moment of discovery for the artist, an opportunity to see himself and perhaps to reveal something of the viewer. It is a privilege to encounter the truths of these individuals, to experience the weight and magnetism of each persona as Quinn processes and communicates it in his own subtle poetry.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn SCENES is open through November 12, 2022 at Almine Rech London.