If, per the internet, the average surface area of an adult human body roughly approximates that of a 4-by-4-foot painting, then we might imagine every epidermal application of serums, moisturizers, and essential oils as blotchy stains of paint—my body as a beige, bruise-colored Helen Frankenthaler. Quay Quinn Wolf visualizes this metaphor in two paintings recently on view at Jack Barrett in New York: Untitled, a stretched rectangle of tanned vegetable leather, and its partner, Rest, an unprimed canvas treated with essential oils. With their smooth, caramel-like surfaces, the works allude to the regimens that humans follow to protect their skin. The paintings look varnished, but also reveal little rips and imperfections that make them feel more organic.
But in this unsettling, admittedly ridiculous comparison of skin to painting, we leave out some key facts, particularly that the body’s surface is constantly renewed; and that more than any cream, time is the main mark-maker on our skin, affecting its striations, textures, and hues. Indeed, while Wolf’s exhibition as a whole, titled “Repair,” formed a spare, enigmatic exploration of self-care rituals, the artist’s interest seemed to lie less in the skin care industry or products than in something more existential: the human impulse toward renewal, given the constant ravages of time.
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In this serene installation of just seven works, all 2022, Wolf juxtaposed materials that have long life spans—metal, latex, steel—with those that we usually consider the most ephemeral: scents, flowers, the skin cells we shed every minute. Breathe, a metal box full of dried lavender set on the floor, filled the space with a scent that started out pleasant but became cloying, headache-inducing. At first, I mistook the lavender for ashes, a fitting association, as the plant matter will decay even as the steel box remains intact. In a typical older work, like Connected (2020), Wolf proposed a similar juxtaposition, bringing together a car door part, rubber tubes, and lilies. The effect is a brittle equilibrium, something we might call a “queer” mixing of traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” energies.
“Even if the overt theme of a work isn’t queerness, I strive to inject it into the piece,” Wolf said in a 2019 interview. The artist treats identity with a light touch, preferring to sublimate it into the qualities and characteristics of materials. Many of the sculptor’s pieces appear to have been inside, near, or around a body at some point. In Impression Tray (No.1) and Impression Tray (No.2), stainless steel dental impression trays—of the kind a dentist might use to make a mold for dentures—have little glittering pyrite stones affixed to them with galvanized steel wire, suggesting loose teeth. Clothes—particularly those, like suit jackets, fur coats, and sweatpants, that are often gendered male or female—also often stand in for queer bodies in Wolf’s work, as in the pearl-embroidered Champion men’s t-shirt of the 2020 sculpture Fear of Softness (No. 1).
These material tensions sometimes become futuristic. Two works toward the back of the gallery evoked what is to come. In Rose Water, a fifty-five-gallon plastic drum, like a Roni Horn sculpture, is covered with a semitransparent latex shroud. Inside, white roses are apparently floating in a light-blue liquid, as the press release states, but the barrel was too opaque to confirm this. The roses will decay in the liquid over time, and the smell they diffuse will change accordingly. As they die, they will also yield something new.
This idea of rebirth is echoed in Snakeskin (white), a fifty-eight-inch skin of a king rat snake that hangs from a silver grommet. A plastic double of the skin hangs in front of it, like a serum materialized, or a futuristic armor. Here, snakeskin, like so many other elements in the show, suggested an unnerving, inorganic renewal of the self.