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Nathaniel Mary Quinn Transforms His Fractured Past into Arresting Art

The painter’s new exhibit, Nothing’s Funny, renders comedy icons in his signature disjointed style.

Photo: Michael Mundy

Comedy was the soundtrack to Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s childhood, particularly the great black comics his father listened to. Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx—comedians who would “talk about the same kinds of conditions in which I grew up, and find a way to make them funny,” says Quinn, who was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes, the former housing project in Bronzeville. “Comedy was a form of escape.”

Now 40 and an artist living in New York, Quinn has spent the past five years translating his early memories into Frankensteinian portraits of meaningful influences, including teachers and his late mother, Mary. In Nothing’s Funny, an exhibit of nine new paintings opening September 8 at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (118 N. Peoria St.), Quinn turns to the role comedy has played in his life.

Humor wasn’t Quin’s only relief growing up; he also found drawing. He would constantly sketch his surroundings—and even local gang members, who accepted his work in exchange for protection. “They called me Lil’ Nate,” says Quinn. “ ‘Lil’ Nate, he’s an artist. Ain’t nobody better than Lil’ Nate.’ ”

It wasn’t just gang members who took note of Quinn’s skill. With help from teachers at his middle school, Quinn got a scholarship to attend a private boarding school in Indiana, where he focused on art. Quinn’s first semester away, his mother died (he believes of a stroke). He returned home for the funeral in October, but the next time he came back, for Thanksgiving break as a 15-year-old freshman, he found the family’s apartment vacant: His father and four older brothers were gone. He hasn’t seen them since. (His only contact has been a single phone call with his brother Charles in 2013.)

Quinn moved to New York City in 2000 and got an MFA from New York University. He continued to make art: straightforward, figurative pieces, nothing like what he makes today. That changed in 2012 when Quinn was rushing to complete a charcoal face for a show. He drew it in “compartments”—an eye here, a mouth there—and what resulted was beautifully grotesque, like something from a game of exquisite corpse. Quinn called it Charles because it reminded him of his brother. “Right in that moment it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “That’s what my work would be about.”

The disjointed style, Quinn realized, echoed his fractured home life and recalled his mother, who had suffered strokes that partially paralyzed her left side. Says Quinn: “Essentially, every work I make is almost a reflection of my mother’s physical disposition.”

Quinn continued to refine his new style, and in 2014 he was tapped for a solo show at the prestigious Pace Gallery in London. A year later, Chicago gallerist Rhona Hoffman signed Quinn on the spot after visiting his studio in New York. “Quinn manages to do a portrait not just of the superficial characteristics of the person’s face, but the personality within the person,” says Hoffman. “He creates a character you can talk about.”

With the new show, Quinn continues to examine his past, but from a different angle. One work depicts Eddie Murphy’s character Uncle Gus, while another tackles Buck Nasty of Chappelle’s Show fame. The painting Ahhhhh shows Bill Cosby against a desolate background. The piece, says Quinn, references both Cosby’s comedic legacy and the loss of it. “It’s a true portrait,” he says. “It’s not this seamless, clean bullshit. That’s what [people] really look like.”

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