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History Painting +
20 May – 16 October 2022
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

The exhibition Marc Quinn: History Painting + presents six works displayed among the historical collections of the Yale Centre for British Art. The selection, which includes painting and sculpture, is shown alongside works by Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and J. M. W. Turner, providing a contemporary foil to the museum’s holding of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history paintings, grand manner portraiture, landscape paintings, and portrait busts.

The exhibition begins in the Entrance Court with Self 1991 (1991), the first in a sculptural series wherein medium, material, and message collide. Made from ten pints of the artist’s frozen blood, the work relies on constant refrigeration to maintain its form. A metaphor for human fragility and physical deterioration, this sculptural self-portrait reverses the traditional role of the portrait bust as a symbol of immortality.

On the fourth floor, four works from the History Painting series are displayed alongside the YCBA’s historical collections. Traditional history paintings fictionalized depictions of contemporary events to glorify nation and empire. In Quinn’s History Painting series, the genre is inverted by foregrounding civilians engaged in anti-government protests around the world.

Photo-realist canvases reimagine iconic images from Associated Press, Getty, and Reuters, such as Vasily Maximov’s photograph of the burning “battlefield” of Kyiv published in Time magazine in 2014, and Jonathan Bachman’s photo of Ieshia Evans facing police in Baton Rouge following the killing of Alton Sterling in 2016. Because of wide-scale media distribution, images of ordinary people take on immense and unprecedented political agency and power.

Over a decade in the making, each painting in the series is carefully developed over a course of months, in contrast to the rapid circulation of the images from which they derive. Each canvas is finished with gestural overpainting, using the same colours with which the picture was made. This final creative step encapsulates the energy of the process and expresses the latent, unlimited potential of paint, in its raw and abstract form, to become any image or depict any event. The combination of hyperrealism and abstraction speaks to the interplay between order and chaos, materialisation, and dematerialisation.

The exhibition also features Thames River Water Atlas (2017), a medium-scale sculpture conceived as an artist’s book. Like many objects in the museum’s collections, the work considers humanity’s relationship with and impact on the environment. It incorporates traces of detritus found at the edges of the Thames and impressions of water drains in London’s streets, marking a vivid contrast with the land and seascapes on display at the YCBA. This freestanding sculptural work was published by Ivorypress, which has specialized in artists’ books for twenty-five years. Marc Quinn: History Painting + was organized in collaboration with the artist and curated by Martina Droth, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Yale Centre for British Art.

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