Random Associations, Real and Imagined
Sofia Quirno is an Argentinian painter who makes paintings and sculptures and videos. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, she studied international politics there before moving to New York, where in 2015 she received her MFA from the Parsons School of Design. Her paintings, an irrational display of disparate objects, more than a few of which stand at a conceptual distance from each other, document the uneven jumps of thought that take place when we are not concentrating on a single subject so much as we are daydreaming. In fact, in her studio in an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, not too far from the Brooklyn Museum, Quirno showed me a number of notebooks filled with casual drawings she made while watching television. The drawings directly inform her improvisational paintings, which bemuse her audience while beguiling them with imageries that make little conscious sense but join together cohesively in an intuitive fashion. Often, the distance between the reality of the paintings and that of our visual lives feels deliberate–as if we were intended to guess at the works’ meaning, which has been obscured by forms that defy any easy recognition. In a way, then, we can say Quirno’s work is domestically visionary–many of the paintings seem to be interiors–and also make use of a free association that is psychoanalytic in its implications.
We are in a time of great change in visual art. Traditional methodologies have been rejected for some time (although good figurative and abstract art still exists) in favor of either work dominated by social practice or by a determination to evade any traditional sense of design, either in figurative or abstract art. Quirno’s art, usually suggestive of actual things, also regularly eschews definition to the point where those things are hard to describe and identify; sometimes, too, the paintings can be seen as abstract efforts, in which the abstraction is indirect and unceremonious–and also free of the emotional dramatics of abstract expressionism. We might see Quirno’s work most effectively as sketches of the way life is lived now–as a series of unrelated, random events whose sense can be described more effectively than it can be intentionally read. Maybe we can call the artist’s methodology a presentation of the absurd in a time that heavily values materialism. Not that Quirno is making materialist paintings and sculptures--far from it. Instead, her work feels like a rejection of determined content in a society (American) that favors goods over principles. I don’t think this is necessarily conscious reasoning on the artist’s part; instead, Quirno is documenting life as she and we currently live it. But there is a sense in her work that we are at sea.
The lack of legitimate reason in Quirno’s process is supported by her interest in psychology, psychoanalysis in particular. This intensive form of treatment sees speech and action stemming from inner workings we are not necessarily aware of. Treatment consists of speech interaction, but Quirno successfully visualizes the method. In a way, in her art we are looking at the detritus of her unconscious, presented as chance–which is usually the way the unconscious finds itself conveying thought and feeling in public ways. Of course, psychoanalysis derives its insights from an emphasis on the id’s push toward eros and violence. Yet this does not occur in Quirno’s art, which engages viewers by means of a happenstance charm. The way her work does connect with the analytic process is via its disparate, non-aligned components, which exist side by side without acknowledging relations based on similarity of content. So, inevitably, the work is not easy to make sense of. Interestingly, working in this way enables Quirno to evade the problem of a pronounced ego; she embraces free form as a way of achieving a liberated attitude toward her work. The elements in the paintings, and also in the equally casual sculptural assemblages, feel very much as though they have simply been scattered across the composition. The conscious ego, an important influence in the way a painting is made, is not found.
What does such formal idiosyncrasy mean? First, it allows Quirno to establish a slightly eccentric voice, although this kind of deliberate irrelevance occurs increasingly in new art. Second, it provides her viewers with the freedom to make of the painting what they wish. The psychological space the artist encompasses is duplicated in the space given the audience in its interpretation of what it sees. The freedom thus is double, extending from artist to viewer. This would encourage as many readings of Quirno’s art as there are people seeing it. We know sensibilities are entirely different from one person to the next, so our view of so unrelational an art is going to be as various as can be. It is true that if we were to offer a criticism of Quirno’s work, we might say that the lack of a governing concept underlying her vision, as contemporary and even compelling it may seem, distances her from any easy acceptance of meaning by her onlookers. But we also know that abstraction or the psychologically oriented movement of Surrealism has created imageries that defy a full knowledge of motive. This is what happens in Quirno’s work in a 21st-century fashion. We can only acknowledge her intention as something deeply hidden within her own ideas about art–just as we would reflect on the absurdities of unknown mind.
There is an important point to be made about Quirno’s general style, which is in keeping with a good consensus among painters in New York, not to make adequate sense. This decision of course expands the freedom of the painter to work in any way available to her, but at the same time it removes cohesion. We often have only a small idea of what we are looking at. Some of the problem may stem from the merger between figurative and abstract elements, something that has been going on for a while. In Quirno’s work, we can clearly see clouds and blue sky, buildings and windows, the upper torso and arms of a person. But there are unidentifiable abstract forms as well. Perhaps what binds this style is the rapid succession of pictures we find in our lives–on television and on the Internet. One image follows the other, usually for commercial reasons, at speeds that confuse our internalization of them. In like fashion, the kind of work appearing often in painting today has the feeling that so little makes sense we are obliged to structure it ourselves. Indeed, instead of structure, what we experience is a random, scatter-shot array of items that are both hard to determine and out of place. But as difficult as this way of working may appear to the viewer, it is an accurate representation of contemporary experience. Why can’t Quirno use the television as a means of generating visual content? At this point, it looks like it has more power to provide visual content than the external world.
Thus, the responsibility of comprehension has moved increasingly away from the artist and toward her audience. Is this a good or necessary thing? When the Renaissance painters worked, they enjoyed the common culture they shared with the audience; it was biblical and Christian. Everyone knew the stories, even if a person was not literate. Now that we have embraced a near anarchy of invention, we need to work out a consistent method of interpretation that will convey some sense of intention in work that appears to refuse a readable rationale. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art now, there is a large exhibition, “Surrealism without Borders,” that illustrates the intended, unconscious disarray of meaning; we remember that Surrealism began more than a century ago. Is Quirno’s work a continuation of that kind of mind? The disjointed imagery of today is impromptu rather than a sought-for disassociation. It is like much of our experience now, being distracted, not given to known purpose, and at a remove from the conscious display of skill. Yet we cannot use traditional art historical values to critique the work we see today; instead, we need to accept pictorial themes that currently exist as evidence of a deep-seated mistrust of the impartiality of high formalism in favor of the personal, which is what counts today in both art.
If we look at Quirno’s work, we can discern just how profoundly personal her art is. This comes not only from the spirit of the time in a general sense, it also stems from the Argentinian preoccupation with psychology, which Quirno has assured me is ubiquitous. "Now What?" (2021) is an extremely simple work on paper. In the upper register, we see a woman’s torso; her upper body is cut off at a high point by a rounded black line. There is a scalloped opening where her neck and head would be, but they do not exist in the picture. On her left hand only we find a black glove. Beneath this partial figure is a horizontal swathe of black, absolutely abstract. The challenge for the onlooker is to make sense of the association, which is at once recognizable and nonobjective, alluring and non-sensual. One can find no easy bridge between the two elements. But maybe that’s the point; maybe, even if in an unconscious fashion, Quirno is recognizing figuration and abstraction, the two ways paintings are made. One hesitates to give the image a too heavily symbolic reading, especially since Quirno’s free association is clear from the start. But it is also true that imagery directly issuing from a hidden place can, to some extent, be rationally determined. Quirno cannot escape the constraints of meaningfulness entirely, even if the works can seem to make no sense.
"D C I Love You" (2021) can accurately be described as Surreal; it pays homage to a favorite painter of Quirno’s: de Chirico. A bright blue sky covers the top half of the painting, beneath which is a two-storey building with windows and a door on the right. In front of the building is a strange figure, with an undifferentiated white body and a black head whose top is flat; it has a single open eye. Standing on a gray pedestal, the figure extends a thin blue arm that reaches out to a white sphere. Abstracted and handless, the arm looks utilitarian, extremely schematic. The distance between the emotion of the painting’s title and its pictorial content is extreme. But maybe the sphere is a personification, and maybe we are seeing a connection between two people. Yet it is hard to say. The combination of a believable outdoor context and the strangeness of the figure and its relation to the sphere results in a mismatch in need of a very free explanation. The painting actively resists comprehension, and we are not necessarily helped by its name. A confusion, deliberate or not, likely ensues. This happens on a regular basis in Quirno’s art.
"I Got the Blues" (2021) is an interior, indicated by a door with windows attached to a post on the left. Behind it is an open sky and what looks like a gray cliff. To the right is a large white square, with a gray abstract object on its top. Beneath, one finds a blue triangular monitor with a blue landscape showing on a screen; next to it is a box, perhaps a sound speaker, with an electric cord trailing off behind it. On the right are inexplicable images with the exception of the word “in.” The color blue plays a large part in the painting, but so does black, gray, and white. The title is as informal as the parts of the painting. What a conscious mess she’s painted! As viewers, once again, we are challenged to find a thematic pattern, but it is far away from reasonable inquiry. Perhaps the pile of unidentifiable objects might be linked to the American enthusiasm for material goods. But that is only a guess. It is also likely an exploration of exterior and depressed interior states in a metaphysical sense, especially in light of the virus quarantine. In the long run, we are taken with Quirno’s art because of its refusal to comply with rules. To jump to another category of art, it is the equivalent of free or abstract jazz, where continuity is rejected in favor of the purity of noise. I Got the Blues is busy but indecipherable. We can only envision a scenario whose logic is skewed to the point where content becomes a very secondary question. This may be troubling to the more traditional viewer, but a new generation of artists takes it as a given.
Quirno’s short videos–the three I viewed were all less than a minute long--closely follow her direction in painting, except that the forms move. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the films, which regularly emphasize white shapes against a light background. The most effective way of interpreting the videos might be to liken to the processes of the mind, which can jump from one thought to the next, including ideas that have nothing to do with the occupation of the person at the time. Yet there is nothing personally revealing about the striking films, which seem to generate their own reason. When art is as far from rational discourse as these works are, they must be enjoyed without demanding consequence or design. The abruptness of the formless shapes’ movement, sometimes erased in a moment and sometimes dropped down from above, is visually striking, likely because the events lack a plan. To experience Quirno’s art in all its quirky fullness is to do away with any expectation of contrivance. It is a visual anarchy in rebellion against convention, perhaps on a social level as well as on a visual one. Again and again, we are asked to speculate, often without full confidence, on the implications of the works of art.
Thinking over Quirno’s body of work, the writer/viewer must come to terms with the notion that the random associations we find, real or imagined, result in some way from conscious arrangement. Even though we have spoken about the way the unconscious plays a role in her process, Quirno is not so unpracticed an artist as to allow anything to happen. There is an awareness to what she does that structures what appears to be without rationale. The paintings would not do as well as they do if it were not for an overarching perception that somehow brings into contact articles that we imagine to be entirely isolated. While it is important not to overemphasize the organization of her efforts, it is also true that we cannot fully perceive them as only disorganized. This is partly because of the great space associated with her analytic method, in which the mind takes hold of whatever it wants, and it is partly because we have had decades of havoc in painting, in America especially with the unconstrained hand of abstract expressionism. The tradition of a liberated visual production is there, then. Freedom of thought and image is key to many artists now, who see a political as well as esthetic truth in cutting ties between objects in a picture. Quirno, who is not an activist, has chosen an art-determined spaciousness that would enable her to pick and choose without a sense of obligation. Thus, her language, while baffling in part, also demonstrates clearly her need to free associate.
But it is not as if the artist were assembling a language utterly beyond what we see. There are in fact elements of nature and culture that can be easily understood in the work. They function as a boundary for the otherwise entirely chaotic compilation of things we don’t understand. By introducing a small degree of reason into her art, she establishes a degree of communicative intelligence that helps us comprehend her efforts. Now that fine art has been freed from representation for more than a century, beginning with the advances of Cubism, anything goes. But that does not mean that the art will be good. In Quirno’s case, we see her ably push to the side the suggestion of any tradition except maybe, in a conceptual sense, that of Surrealism. The latter movement of course was heavily influenced by Freudian thought. We may not be entirely sure of this in Quirno’s visual investigations, but it does seem clear that she is devoted to unconconscious procedures. Inevitably, that direction does not shut people out so much as bring people in, taken as most of us are by the claims of the concealed, so pronounced in the artist’s works.
Jonathan Goodman, December 5, 2021