Being Past/Present: An Interview with Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Diane Nathaniel Mary Quinn

by Ella Jean

Quinn greets me in a grey suit, pink shirt and big smile. It’s his first time in London to show his work at Pace London in Soho. Despite arriving only the day before, he’s positively ready for a morning interview. He’s chilled and easy to talk to, but he has a force in his syntax. One of my first questions is what the title Past/Present means to him, and he answers with a focused energy, like a 10,000 watt laser. He sums up his philosophy on his work before my recorder has passed the 5 minute mark:

“Here it is: The way that I make my work is predicated on a highly instinctual process, and to be instinctual requires one as present. If you’re not present, you’re not being instinctual, you are being governed by your thoughts, and thoughts are constructed from past experiences. When you’re present, you’re not governed by your thoughts at all, you’re just governed by that moment you’re in.”

“It turns out, however,” he swings in his Chicago accent, “that the end result of working in the moment is producing work that’s heavily based on my past experiences. That’s where that past/present paradigm comes into play.”

Two years ago, Quinn was working entirely differently. The mother of a student he was tutoring offered to host Quinn’s work in her parlour in Brooklyn, but he was one piece short. He committed himself to the challenge of creating a piece in 5 hours, and was astounded by the result of what he could create with a blank canvas and no agenda.

Quinn’s paintings are all done by hand, although he uses photographs of people, and sometimes even advertisements, to inspire pieces. The result looks sometimes like a collage but, because it’s all done by hand, the scale and shape is intentionally warped in the process.

Quinn was born in Chicago at the same time that hip hop was born in New York City, in 1977. When I tell Quinn, to me, the fragments within his work made me think of hearing vinyl sampled on a hip hop track, he lights up. Before I know it we’re singing the intro to Kanye West’s Bound 2 as he describes how his connection to hip hop music is perhaps stronger than his connection to any genre of visual art.

“I would listen to stuff like that and think, ‘I wanna paint like that.’” He describes how the gaps in his portraits are like changes in samples. He covers pieces of his face, a la his painting Diane (see above), as he compares it to the change of texture when you put two vinyl samples side-by-side. It’s true that looking at his work is like looking at hip hop music. It comes from the same expression in all of its qualities: fragments of the past, self-expression, improvisation, and movement.

“Producers, like Pharrell WIlliams or Timbaland, they’re not sitting down writing a theory about how to make a beat, they’re feeling the beat.” Quinn uses the same energy and presence when he creates his work to invent fully formed ideas in the present that maintain moments from his past. Not only does Quinn express pieces of ‘subconscious inspiration’ organically, he also questions what is beauty; ‘beauty’ as a definition we are conditioned to.

Pace Gallery describes Quinn’s work as “a conscious endeavour to free his mind from excessive introspection.” He explains to me how he makes an effort in his work to divorce himself from sociological projections. “It’s a lot about exploring my human-ness. Not my black-ness or my American-ness, but my human-ness and my humanity.

“Society teaches us that we should always present this mask, this thing, this shield, this shit… We don’t even question why we do it. If you are constantly in the present then you see what you really are and what you’re really made of. We categorise everything. We call a table a table. It’s a table. Well, what’s so table-like about this table? What if we grew up calling this a chair? So in reality we don’t know what the fuck this is,” he says, pointing to (what I think is) a table.

When did he first make this realisation? About four years ago when he started going to therapy. At 15, Quinn returned from school in Indiana to an empty house. His brothers and father were gone, without a word. His mother had passed away the previous month. Before therapy, art was his way of releasing his feelings. With therapy, he was able to discover even more about himself, bringing with it a new feeling of identity. He says: “You go on through life believing that you are not worthy of secure attachments. You are too afraid of being once again abandoned, which means you go on through life being a victim. You prepare yourself to be a victim.” He lets out a little laugh of relief and understanding, “because you are afraid that people are going to abandon you. What you’re really doing,” he says with conviction, “is guaranteeing your abandonment. You believe that other people are doing it to you.”

Quinn gives off the energy of someone who has been through a transformative year, and he has. Through a series of connections – people seeing his art, and his heart – he’s made it all the way from Brooklyn to London. For someone who speaks with conviction I’m surprised when he’s still a bit shy about his art. He says, “I hope people like the work. That’s been a perpetual concern for me, actually,” the only time I see a glimmer of the internal insecurities he speaks about.

“As long as you operate from here,” he says thumping a fist to his heart, “it’s always gonna be good.”

Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s exhibition Past/Present will be open from now until October 4th at Pace London (6-10 Lexington Street, W1F 0LB).

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