At first glance, Hosie’s Lady (2016) looks like a collage. Two differently-sized eyes, the flipped nose and mouth of Fred Flintstone, and graphic, abstracted shards of eyelash form a fractured face, superimposed over what looks like a photographic portrait of a brown-haired woman. In fact, Nathaniel Mary Quinn has rendered every element of the work by hand, using charcoal, gouache and pastel with astounding skill to create a powerful vision of complex, shifting identity. While the Chicago-born artist’s intricately assembled works – which use images derived variously from memory, magazines or online sources – call to mind Dadaist photomontage, they perhaps have more in common with George Condo’s post-Cubist portraits or the paintings of Francis Bacon, which express psychic intensity through kaleidoscopic features and violent, tumultuous brushstrokes. Works like Hosie’s Lady, often based on specific individuals and their stories, ultimately manifest Quinn’s belief in the potential of the human spirit, and the rich, multifaceted interior lives that exist beneath every person’s surface. ‘We are a cacophony of experience’, he has said. ‘Not just a seamless self’ (N. Mary Quinn, quoted in A. K. Scott, ‘Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s Cubist Portraits Address the Psychic Ruptures of Gentrification in Brooklyn’, New Yorker, 15 September 2018).
Quinn’s own story is an arresting one. Born into poverty in Chicago’s South Side, he showed artistic talent from a young age; gang members would offer him protection in exchange for him including them in his comic strips. Aged fifteen, he earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Culver Academies boarding school in Indiana. After his first month there, his mother suddenly passed away. When he returned to Chicago for Thanksgiving shortly afterwards, he found that his father and brothers had left their home, abandoning him. He has not seen them since. Determined to succeed, he continued his education, eventually earning an MFA from New York University; he added his mother’s name, Mary, to his own, so that everything he achieved would be in her memory. For a decade, he painted at night while working as a teacher, and exhibited steadily in New York, until a breakout show at London’s Pace Gallery in 2014 propelled him to international stardom. Collectors including Elton John, Anderson Cooper and Carmelo Anthony purchased his work, which was also acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Much of Quinn’s earlier output reflected on people from his past; an epiphany came during feverish preparation for a show, when he realised the face of his brother, Charles, who he hadn’t seen for fifteen years, had appeared in one of his fragmented portraits. More recently, he has started to explore the faces and personalities of his present neighbourhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Works like Hosie’s Lady are Quinn’s heartfelt responses to the world around him, articulating what is unseen through keen empathy and radical formal means. ‘I’m not even thinking when I compose my portraits’, he has said; ‘I’m feeling. This allows for the exploration of the human spectrum, the colourful rainbow of identity – the possibilities, the freedom, the liberty, the pursuit of greatness’ (N. Mary Quinn, quoted in T. Dafoe, ‘“History Is Dictated by Where You Stand”: Nathaniel Mary Quinn on Using His Neighbors as Subjects for Heartrending New Portraits’, artnet news, 9 October 2018).