quinn mcnichol

Interview by Krista Schoening

Quinn, would you tell me a bit about the sources from which you draw imagery for your paintings? I’m particularly interested in the work you are showing at the Henry. 

The images for those paintings and for a lot of my other works come from both my lived experience and things that I’ve dreamed — whether that’s sleeping dreaming, or daydreaming. Sometimes I’ll have an experience that was real but I’ve elaborated or fantasized a magical realism of it. 

I think of my creative practices as being like a colander, where my whole life goes through, and some things stay and some things get sifted out. My dad is a folk musician and growing up I heard a lot of his favorite music. When I paint, I usually listen to music, and I’ve been making playlists to keep me company and remember or document the time. Sometimes a word or phrase from a song will pop up and alter my train of thought and then that will work its way into the painting.

These three paintings are named after three different songs. I have been thinking a lot about my parents’ influence on me, so two of the titles come from songs my parents love, and the third comes from one of my own favorites.  If all you told was turned to gold, if all you dreamed was new, is from an Enya song that my mom used to play a lot. I used to think that stuff was too sweet and angelic, but now, listening to it reminds me of my childhood. The second one is called Concrete world full of souls. Throughout the duration of that painting three angel figures emerged. I later connected that visual element with one of my dad’s favorite Bob Dylan songs, Three Angels, and pulled the title from the lyrics to that song. The last one is from No Face, a Haley Heynderickx song: Is it the bridge between worlds that makes you feel alone? I liked that lyric because I have been thinking so much about that bridge between worlds, between the waking and dreaming, where angels and ghosts might exist; sometimes you can feel alone in those kinds of thoughts.

The way that these paintings are displayed is very distinctive, with the geometric solidity of the canvases contrasting with the soft, irregular roundness of the cloth beneath them. How did you make the decision to display these paintings this way? 

It was a long time coming to that decision. The whole time when I was making the paintings, they were in a heavily painted room full of objects, and I felt that the image of the painting was relating to the space around it. There was never a time when the paintings lived on their own. At some point I took them out of the studio to a separate place and they just felt really alone. It was weird to hang them at the standard 60-inch midline on a wall; these paintings are such a reflection of my own experience, and I wanted to maintain that.

So having them on the floor was a way of having them in relationship to your body because they’re on your level?

Yes: the way that I made them was so much about tracing my own body, imprinting my moving figure on the canvas, that I felt like they had to be on the ground. So, keeping them low to the ground satisfied me visually, but I still felt like they needed more — some kind of entry into the painting. After playing with different things like recycled paintings and raw canvas, I realized that I needed to make something specifically for these paintings. I had bought fabric, for a ceiling installation I was making, so I took the fabric and I laid it down, tucking it around the paintings, and that felt right. It reminded me of an altar space.  I keep an altar at home for my own personal practices, so that made sense to me, and I decided to paint on the fabric to extend the language of the paintings. I also placed objects I made on the fabric that relate to the objects in the painting, almost like some sort of trick of the eye, but not trompe l’oeil exactly.  I like the idea that the painting has its own painted existence, and if you believe in that painted existence, it can begin to enter into this world too. We came up with the title Dissolving Boundaries (a phrase borrowed from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels) for the show at Sand Point, and I’ve been thinking about that… it’s like the boundaries of the painting are dissolving, and what’s in our tangible world and what’s in the painted world weave in and out of these planes of existence.

That leads me to a question about some of your other work because I’m thinking about the way that the paintings are kind of opening up and letting people in. Do you think of it as a sculpture, or think of it as a painting when you make something like this?

I definitely have a painting brain so even though there are little sculptures in there, they are more like evidence and supporting materials of this painterly logic. I have been thinking about the edge of the picture for a long time and doing different things with it, like putting my hands at the bottom of the painting, so it looks like I’m drawing the picture as it’s being made. Or putting distinct borders around an image as a way to think about floating into the picture. Where can the painting world melt into our three-dimensional world? I totally use the word installation, because that just makes sense in terms of language, but I suppose I really think about them more as something like extended paintings. 

You made the decision to trace your body onto the surface of these paintings rather than drawing it from memory or from a mirror, and this strikes me because that sort of indexical mark — the outline or imprint of the body — historically was sometimes considered to have a stronger presence or power than something that’s just drawn, because it’s an actual record of a body. What inspired you to trace your body for this work? 

I made an installation at Sand Point, and I wanted to find a way to bring the feeling of that installation into the Henry show, but obviously I couldn’t bring the whole thing. So the paintings were a documentation of what it was like when I inhabited the space of that installation. I wanted to see what my body looked like in there, as truthfully and as authentically as I could. Mirrors are deceiving, and I don’t really use photographs for anything I do, so it didn’t make sense to do a photo session. The way that seemed right was to put my physical body against the canvas. For a minute I felt like I was totally cheating — I was like oh, here we go, I’m a grad student and I’m just tracing my body — it felt kinda silly. But I liked the physical, pressurized experience of going against the canvas because it so truthfully documented me in that moment. It was also the closest I could get to entering the painting world — it’s like, can you stand on the edge of the canvas and fall into it? And then I’ve also just been, in general, thinking about embodiment and considering how I move through space. … So again, having the most physical way to put my body on the canvas felt right.

Can you say a bit about how some of this recent work deals with your identity?

The Concrete World Full of Souls painting started as a nude portrait — for a long time it was a full-size nude painting. It’s also about menstruation, which is something I deal with and experience. Viewers always gendered this nude figure with breasts and vagina as female, and that always irked me. I painted shorts and a tank top to cover the figure up, give them some privacy, I guess. I just felt so much better right away. When I was younger, my mom often jokingly called me a boy. It bothered me, and I was always defensive about it. Now though, I wonder if her intentional mis-gendering made it easier for me to eventually move away from the gender binary, to embrace embodying both masculine and feminine energies within myself. 

I shy away from using specific identifying words like straight / gay / bisexual because I always felt like I identify primarily as a painter. I recently read this book that my mom sent me called How to be both by Ali Smith. It’s divided into two intertwined narratives, one of which is a first-person narrative of the painter Francesco del Cossa, who was alive in the 1400s. They think in color. Their thought is so fluid, and they oscillate between referring to themself as male and female. My understanding is that they’re changing throughout the day or throughout their life based on what they’re feeling or experiencing. This artist moves fluidly through gender expressions and identities, but what they hold onto for their whole lives is their identity as a painter and how that can be so nuanced and changing. I feel like that is how I identify most. I have been using both she and they pronouns. When I’m painting and working in the studio, I don’t feel particularly male or female, I just feel like quinn, and I’m embracing this constant change, moving away from binary thought. 

You mentioned the Tarot as an important source of inspiration. What is the role of tarot cards in your current practice? 

I have this tarot deck called the Motherpeace tarot deck and it was made in the 70s by these queer feminists who left their husbands and lived and worked together in Berkeley, CA. These cards fell into my life pretty organically, so I feel really connected to them. The first card I ever pulled was the nine of disks, which largely inspired the imagery in If all you told was turned to gold if all you dreamed was new. The cards are small — palm-sized — and they are circle shaped, so they don’t have positive and negative aspects. When I pull a card, I receive a vibe that carries me through the day, like something to meditate on that helps me to reach more within myself and pull things from my thoughts and reveal them and examine them. Practice with the tarot cards allows me permission to bring magic into my day. I was raised with Catholicism, so I think I’m pretty oriented towards having something to look at to inspire me or something to follow. But I find with tarot cards there’s a lot more freedom: it stretches my brain in ways that I love.

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