In his collage-like composite portraits derived from sources both personal and found, Nathaniel Mary Quinn probes the relationship between visual memory and perception. Fragments of images taken from online sources, fashion magazines, and family photographs come together to form hybrid faces and figures that are at once neo-Dada and adamantly realist, evoking the intimacy and intensity of a face-to-face encounter.
Quinn’s passion for drawing began at a young age, while he was growing up on the South Side of Chicago. In ninth grade, he received a scholarship to attend Culver Academies boarding school in Indiana—but a month after arriving at the school, Quinn received news from his father that his mother had suddenly passed away. He returned to Chicago for Thanksgiving the following month, only to find that the rest of his family—his father and brothers—had abandoned his childhood home without a trace. This jarring experience further propelled Quinn’s art, and he decided to commit himself to his education, adding his mother’s name, Mary, to his name so that she would appear on all of his degrees. He received a BA in art and psychology from Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 2000, and an MFA from New York University in 2002.
After completing his MFA, Quinn moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he continued to paint while working as a teacher for at-risk youth. In 2013 he had a breakthrough, developing a new technique that would draw wide attention to his work. The mother of one of his students invited Quinn to show five works in an art salon that she was hosting in her home. On the day of the opening, however, he only had four works finished. Improvising, he began to paint a blurred memory of his past, piecing together fragments of images from his subconscious. When he stepped back, he recognized the mouth of his brother Charles.
Soon afterward, the executive director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn saw the painting, which Quinn titled Charles, and in August 2013 five more of Quinn’s paintings made in a similar style were displayed in the museum’s windows. That same year, artist and professor William Villalongo included Quinn’s work in a group exhibition, American Beauty, at Susan Inglett Gallery, New York. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote a rave review of Quinn’s paintings in the show, leading to a slew of gallery exhibitions in the United States and Europe.
Since painting Charles, Quinn has been both expanding and refining a process in which he collects images from mass media that call out to him, divesting them of their original cultural context and repurposing them in a purely aesthetic manner. He then uses these visual snippets to bring imagined visions of his past and present into physical existence in his studio. Using oil paint, charcoal, gouache, oil stick, and pastel, he meticulously re-creates details and facial features from these found images, covering parts of the composition as he works. By adapting the medium of collage and translating it into a painterly, cohesive two-dimensionality, Quinn suggests that multiplicity is a perennial rather than a fleeting state.
Quinn’s first solo museum exhibition, This Is Life, was presented at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin, from December 2018 to March 2019.