Artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn creates intimate, mixed-media drawings and paintings of collaged and fragmented figures. A pastiche of family photographs, magazine images and advertisements, Quinn’s work draws from his experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community. Based in Brooklyn, Quinn has shown internationally and his work is in the collections of The Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and more. His exhibition Highlights is showing at M+B Gallery in Los Angeles.

Dexter Wimberly is an independent curator based in New York. A passionate collector and supporter of the arts, Wimberly has exhibited the work of hundreds of artists in the U.S. and abroad. He maintains a critical dialogue with artists throughout the world by way of his exhibitions, public programs and talks at galleries and public art spaces. Wimberly is the former Director of Strategic Planning at Independent Curators International (ICI). He is currently the Visiting Curator at Aljira—a Center for Contemporary Art—and serves on the board of The Laundromat Project.

I met Chicago-born artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn in 2013 and have had the pleasure of working with him on a number of exhibitions. I recently talked with Quinn about new developments in his career, the new challenge of being a recognized artist and Highlights, his upcoming exhibition at M+B Gallery in Los Angeles. Known for portraiture that blends sophisticated painting and drawing techniques to achieve the fractured, disorienting appearance of collage, Quinn’s highly-coveted work depicts an array of people from his childhood who had an indelible influence on his life. Sitting in his new studio in Brooklyn, NY, the artist discusses the lessons he’s learned, the importance of humility and the transformative power of imagination.

Dexter Wimberly: Quinn, we’ve known each other for a few years now, and during that time quite a lot has happened for you. I know it’s been a really strange and interesting journey. Can you give me a capsule of what has happened in your career during the past two or three years?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn: First, in the last three years I went from being a full-time teacher to being a full time artist. Second, I made a transition from being an obscure artist to being acknowledged and discussed, becoming more known. My work has become more recognizable to where viewers can identify, “That’s a Mary Quinn.” Third, I graduated from having community-based exhibitions—i.e. coffee shops or people’s brownstones, which were significant shows for me—to having exhibitions in reputable galleries. I even have a museum show coming up in 2018 in South Carolina at the Halsey Institute of Art at the University of Charleston and had a prior installation that you curated at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, New York.

“I believe that true validation comes from within
in the very beginning—it’s just icing
on the cake that other people get on board.”
— Nathaniel Mary Quinn

DW: Making that transition from obscure to recognized is both rewarding and challenging in many ways because with recognition come scrutiny and criticism. Some artists begin to change under the weight of that. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Change can be good. But from your perspective, how has this shift in your recognition and acknowledgement affected you both personally and in your work?

NMQ: I feel happy. Personally, it’s exciting. It really is. There’s a saying that because a gallery gives you a show, it validates your work. I understand that concept but don’t subscribe to it. I believe that true validation comes from within in the very beginning—it’s just icing on the cake that other people get on board. Artistically, it hasn’t changed my work at all. I just always focus on pushing my art. Because I am a full-time artist now, I have more time to push it further, but I’m not trying to appease the audience or give them what I think they may want. I try to remain extremely authentic no matter what, in the way I would have if none of this had happened.

DW: I remember our first encounter and visiting your studio a few years ago—I immediately had a positive reaction to your work. I’ve also been quite fascinated by the scale of some of the new pieces. A lot of artists have the tendency to work in a particular size range, but you’ve been able to use scale to your advantage. I recall seeing your exhibition at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (Chicago) last September and was very moved by the fact that the smallest works in the show had so much power and energy in them. How are you making these decisions about scale and content?

NMQ: Everything I make is born from a vision, a visual idea, that becomes the blueprint for the work. In that vision, all details are provided: the subject, the way the subject is constructed, the color palette, shape, form and size of the work. If it calls for a large-scale work, then that’s what I do, but if it calls for something small, I do that. At some point, I had this appetite for doing small works. I really wanted to explore a more intimate relationship with my work, and small scale allows that to happen because you’re up on it the whole time. I wanted to make the small works as powerful as the big works. I think there’s a permeating ideology that small works tend to be less strong. But if you think of a painter like Vermeer, all of his paintings were small but he had very powerful and beautiful textures and ways to control light in such a small scale. I think that’s as time consuming, laborious and challenging as making a large work.