The “Nathaniel Mary Quinn: This is Life” exhibition will open Friday, Nov. 30 in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s State Street Gallery for visitors to gaze into the eyes of the subjects of his portraits and back at themselves.
The exhibition will feature a selection of the artist’s mixed-media works on paper from the last four years and will mark his first solo museum show. Chicago-based Quinn, recipient of the Lorraine Hansberry Artistic, Performance, and Fine Arts Award and two-time winner of the National Arts Club Prize, will speak at the reception at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
“It’s been really exciting, gratifying and moving to hear what people conjure or recall or consider based on the artworks they had seen. That’s just so promising for the exhibition itself,” MMoCA Director of Communications Erika Monroe-Kane said.
Quinn’s portraits, pieced together from newspaper and magazine clippings, offer viewers an opportunity to see unique collage work but gives each person a visceral feeling of familiarity and déjà vu. Through his mastery of different mediums, he uses enough black charcoal, soft pastel and oil paint to capture a vivid experience from his past.
“I am thrilled MMoCA is able to bring Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s work to Madison,” MMoCA curator of exhibitions Leah Kolb said. “He approached his art in much the same way he approached the world: with a highly poetic eye and a deeply generous spirit.”
Much like humanity, Kolb and Monroe-Kane both said Quinn’s work reminds someone of “who” rather than “what.” Kolb said each of us is made up of ugly parts and beautiful parts, and things that don’t necessarily align or make sense.
“I think there’s just something simple and truthful about that and it all comes together when you see his work, especially in person,” she said.
Quinn weaves his personal narrative growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago into his work but the themes provide universal truths about human emotions, trauma and struggle. Kolb said he is an artist who intuitively understands people.
“He wants people to see themselves in the images and he wants people to see themselves in a sense that there’s a deep understanding of how complex each person is, how we are all made up of these bits and pieces of experiences and memories and people,” she said.
Monroe-Kane said from the moment that Kolb first introduced the exhibition, it’s been an exciting exhibition to think about putting in front of people and engaging people with. Kolb said hopefully these pieces will inspire empathy and compassion in the current social climate.
“I think that the reactions are so personal. Somebody’s reminded of someone. Someone gets a thread from the work,” Monroe-Kane said.
The exhibition continues an endeavor of the museum to reach out to diverse communities in Madison, engaging people in the artistry of unique artists while allowing the art to inspire dialogue. Monroe-Kane said the exhibition will run until March 3, however, a series of community-led events will begin after the New Year. These events will encourage discussions about black womanhood, socio-economic class and other topics relating to the black experience.
“For me at least, from the curatorial standpoint, contemporary art is about contemporary issues,” Kolb said.
She said Quinn’s work reminds us that we all have different identities and unique experiences which inform how we are in the world. These exhibition and the surrounding events will allow members of the community to think about issues of identity.
“We all have life histories, traumas and experiences that make up who we are and we all have different ways of coping and handling the mess,” Kolb said.
Quinn will discuss his artistry and sources of inspiration for his work from 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. on Friday during the opening reception from 6-9 p.m. DJ M. White will greet attendees with music while they explore Quinn’s art over hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.