Marc Quinn’s wide-ranging oeuvre grapples with limits. Be it the limits of the human body or the cosmos, Quinn’s work explores the materiality of the human condition, our agency in shaping ourselves despite physical constraints and the strange intelligence that seems to govern our world. Both deeply spiritual and provocative, Quinn uses an uncompromising array of materials, from ice and blood to glass, marble, spray paint and lead.
Quinn’s sculptures, paintings and drawings often deal with the distanced relationship we have with our bodies and with nature, highlighting how the conflict between the ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ has a grip on the contemporary psyche. In 1999, Quinn began a series of marble sculptures of amputees as a way of re-interpreting Greek and Roman statuary and their depictions of an idealized whole. One such work depicted Alison Lapper, a woman who was born without arms, when she was heavily pregnant. Quinn subsequently enlarged this work to make it a major piece of public art for the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square, and a third version of the work was also featured as a centrepiece of the 2012 London Paralympics Opening Ceremony.
Quinn has used freezing as a medium since the early nineties, when he created the sculpture Self (1991), a frozen portrait of the artist’s head, cast in his own blood. Other key themes in his work include genetic modification and hybridism. Garden (2000), for instance, is a walk-through installation of impossibly combined frozen flowers that will never decay so long as the display is connected to a power source, and his ‘Eternal Spring’ sculptures feature flowers preserved in perfect bloom by being plunged into sub-zero silicone. Quinn has also explored the potential artistic uses of DNA, making a portrait by extracting strands of the sitter’s DNA and placing them in an agar jelly plate. This, his portrait of Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate and sequencer of the human genome, is now held in the collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery. DNA Garden (2001) contains the DNA of over 75 plant species as well as 2 humans: a re-enactment of the Garden of Eden on a cellular level. In 2012, Quinn began an artistic inquiry into seashells. Fascinated by the strange intelligence that renders these perfect forms, Quinn created exact large scale replicas of the shells. Quinn’s 3D scanning and production process mimicks the way organisms use DNA as a code to reproduce.
Quinn’s diverse and poetic work meditates on our attempts to understand or overcome the transience of human life through scientific knowledge and artistic expression. For example, in a series of paintings titled Flesh Paintings (2012 – ongoing), Quinn captures both the beautiful and grotesque nature of raw meat. In these paintings of meat the marbling of the fat and deep red of the veins becomes abstracted by being magnified. Similar to his Labyrinth series of fingerprint paintings, which reference portraiture through their means of identification, he draws our attention to the wonder of biology and the inherent beauty found within the complex layers of one’s own flesh. More recently, Quinn has inverted this micro, hyper-analytical view in a series of paintings called Toxic Sublime (2014 - ongoing), each of which begin with an expansive view of a rising sun reflecting over a seascape printed on to canvas that Quinn then spray paints, sands and distorts with various objects taken from the urban environment. From here, Quinn bonds the canvas to a sheet of aluminium and subjects it to an aggressive series of twists, kicks and punches, creating works that function as landscape paintings as well as ultra-physical sculptures that, like Quinn's broader practice, symbolise human intervention and presence in the natural environment in both literal and metaphorical ways.