‘People are sometimes mad at me’ – Nina Chanel Abney
With two concurrent exhibitions, the artist’s daring and difficult to define body of work is set to provoke, shock and inspire debate.
Last week was a busy one in Los Angeles for Nina Chanel Abney. The New Jersey-based painter’s California debut has two concurrent exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the California African American Museum (CAAM), both called Royal Flush. (It debuted last year as a single show at Duke University’s Nasher Museum.) Headlining a double feature like that had amounted to twice as many openings, and twice as many cocktail receptions.
“I’m excited to see the responses to my work,” she added, ostensibly the focus of her practice. Her paintings are engineered to elicit response. Royal Flush surveys the past 10 or so years since Abney graduated from Parsons’ MFA program and introduced the art world to her searing sense of humor. There’s a 2008 painting called Randaleeza at the ICA that summarizes the media fascination fueling her work. It’s a chaotic scene: there’s a woman in red lipstick and a white bikini next to a young man in a flannel shirt being shredded by a pack of dogs. If they look remotely familiar, well – the woman is former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and the man in flannel is “my friend Randall”, Abney deadpans. (In the tradition of former it couples Bennifer and Brangelina, she portmanteaued their names for the title.) The dogs are Michael Vick’s, and the star tattoos on Condi’s shoulders belong to Lil Wayne, who was performing on an award show when Abney was painting.
Having debuted at Chelsea gallery Kravets Wehby in a show called Dirty Wash (a phrase that alludes to gossip, or airing out one’s dirty laundry), Randaleeza embodies Abney’s talent for distilling the absurdity of American media and its convergence with tabloid culture into a new, singular narrative. Ten years of political tumult later, Abney’s work remains loaded with the cultural scandals of given point in time, but presented these days in almost complete ambiguity.
While the acidity of her satire has never wavered, Royal Flush traces Abney’s development of a distinct and coded visual language. Figures are less figurative; they’ve been abstracted into an erratic symphony of brighter colors and more basic shapes. They possess androgynous bodies and an array of skin tones, finding a universal appeal in their ambiguity. The kaleidoscopic, geometric blocks and fields of patterns frequently elicit comparisons to Picasso and Matisse. Abney has pointed to the layered cut-outs of Romare Bearden’s collage as a point of inspiration for her later works, as well as the advent of emojis. They’re a “universal language”, she says, one that’s simultaneously open to interpretation.
Jeffrey Deitch, who commissioned Abney to paint a mural in Coney Island in 2016 (and whose New York gallery is currently hosting Punch, a show that she curated), compares her improvisational skills to those of Keith Haring. Rather than plan ahead, Abney works intuitively, mapping her compositions as she’s painting. “She has this ability to take a visual concept, expand it to mural size, and execute it perfectly with no hesitation,” he says. “It reminds me of a skill Haring had – to find the perfect rhythm, and to get everything right.”
Abney takes the comparison as an utmost compliment; Haring was universally loved, widely disseminating his art in the form of murals and merchandise. Wanting to appeal to the widest audience possible herself, Abney insists there are no judgments embedded into her paintings, or at least, she refuses to share them.
“I would see how certain people would react to paintings that were clearly about race, and how they would shy away from that because they’re not black,” she says, with an open admission that she’s pulling a bait-and-switch. Their ambiguity gives the viewer options. The beauty is that anyone can read them however they like.
Where socially aware art can teeter aggressively into overt, one-dimensional statements, Abney remains a covert operative. As a rule, her paintings remain inscrutable, but one of the few exceptions was a 2015 body of work called Always a Winner. Featuring a clear condemnation of police brutality, it prompted headlines aligning her work with the Black Lives Matter movement, exactly the kind of media pigeonholing she had wanted to avoid. Not wanting to be defined by a single political motivation comes down to the burden of representation forced on black artists. “If I paint a black figure, it can’t just be a figure,” she explains in the exhibition catalog. “It has to be about blackness or race or whatever, where white artists don’t have to think about those things.”
Towards the end of Abney’s visit, she sat for a panel discussion at CAAM with ICA curator Jamillah James and CAAM Naima Keith deputy director. She led a rare explainer on some of the symbols she uses, flipping through projections of her source material: news clippings, protest signs, cartoons, vintage ads of Sea Monkeys. A heart on the canvas often denotes a figure in distress. At least one instance of text was pulled from Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Withholding the paintings’ meaning, however, is what asks you to spend time with them, parsing the symbols and assessing what exactly you’re looking at, and why they look so familiar. The explosive compositions are a visual assault of images we’ve been repeatedly exposed to, thanks to the similar assault of our current news cycle.
“I’m working through it with the viewer,” she says of the unrelenting media. It’s like we’re going through a collective trauma that rarely finds closure and keeps us in a state of uncertainty. “You scroll through your timeline and it’s on to the next. Nobody’s talking about Bill Cosby anymore.”
“People are sometimes mad at me because I can’t give them a specific meaning for a painting, but that’s not my agenda,” she adds. “My agenda is to present your Instagram timeline back to you so you can take time and digest it.” For better or for worse, the candy coating makes it easier to swallow.
- Royal Flush is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the California African American Museum through 20 January
Cover photo: Nina Chanel Abney poses with her work First and Last. Photo: Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo by J Caldwell