It’s not surprising that Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s painting style features fractured faces. Growing up in a Chicago housing project in the 1980s, his talent was recognized early and he earned a scholarship to a boarding school, where he focused on art. During that first semester away from home, his mother died. (As a tribute, he assumed her name as his middle name.) When he returned for Thanksgiving break, he found the family apartment empty. Not only were all his family’s possessions gone, but so were his father and four siblings. To this day, he has not seen any of them.

Quinn eventually earned an M.F.A. from New York University, but he struggled to succeed as an artist. To support himself, he counseled at-risk kids during the day, then spent his nights holed up in his apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, working on his art. His breakthrough came in 2012, when the mother of one of the kids he was working with had a small art show in her home and asked him to contribute. In the rush to finish one piece, he discovered his breakthrough style. The work, Charles, named after one of his brothers, got noticed by another artist, who invited him to be in a group exhibition. Within two years, he had a solo show in London at Pace Gallery.

How Come Not Me, 2019
Black charcoal, gouache, soft pastel, oil pastel on Coventry Vellum Paper
16 x 13 inches / 40.6 x 33 cm

While Quinn’s work appears as collage, all of the pieces are paintings—a mixture of oil, charcoal, gouache, and oil stick. The kaleidoscopic effect is achieved because Quinn covers up each segment as he adds it. Only when he is finished does he uncover the whole canvas, revealing the work in its entirety. In a way, it’s a bit like a glorious version of “exquisite corpse,” the Surrealist parlor game.

Since that breakthrough moment, the waiting list for the 42-year-old painter’s work has only grown, with Carmelo Anthony, Elton John, and Ari Emanuel among the collectors. No wonder, then, that Larry Gagosian lured him to his fold. This week, Quinn will have his first solo show at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery. —Michael Hainey