Nina Chanel Abney Reflects on 15 Years of Honing Her Dynamic Painting Practice

Enuma Okoro
Dec 14, 2020 11:02PM

Nina Chanel Abney, installation view of “The Great Escape,” 2020, at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

New Jersey–based 38-year-old artist Nina Chanel Abney has been making provocative and bold art professionally for the last 15 years. Her large-scale, colorful, abstracted figurative paintings, have been compared to masters such as Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, and Henri Matisse. In these works, she addresses a wide range of themes, from race and politics to celebrity, religion, sex, and art history. Her oeuvre includes paintings, public murals, 3D figures and toys, interactive animation, and augmented reality pieces, and her work can be found in public spaces, on basketball courts, in museums, and in private collections worldwide. Her new exhibition “The Great Escape” is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, where Abney has had representation since 2016, through December 23, 2020. I spoke with Abney over Zoom about the arc of her work, the inspiration for her new show, and how she’s found her artistic voice.

Soft-spoken and quietly reflective, Abney discussed her initial leap, 15 years ago, into a world which she knew basically nothing about. While she felt as though she had little knowledge of art theory or what it could mean to be a professional artist, Abney moved to New York City in 2005 to attend the MFA program at Parsons School of Design. The only Black student in her program, and with a liberal arts degree in computer science and studio art, she initially felt lost. Originally from the south suburbs of Chicago, all Abney was sure of when she began her formal graduate school training was that she had loved painting since she was a child, and none of her post-college jobs had felt as satisfying or necessary as when she was painting.

Nina Chanel Abney
Temporary Friends, 2019
Hurst Contemporary

“My college art program was very traditional and based on Western art history,” Abney recalled. “I didn’t really know of any Black contemporary artists. I knew I liked to paint but I didn’t really know what it meant.”

Even though she grew up in a creative environment surrounded by self-taught jazz musicians, and a mother who painted as a hobby, it took Abney a while to own her passion and pursue what felt like a call to the arts. A pivotal moment came within her first year in New York. During our interview, her voice rose slightly in heightened animation as she remembered coming to that internal sense of knowing she was on the right path. “Arriving in New York when I did just felt like I got here at an amazing time,” she said. “I remember going to Kehinde [Wiley]’s big opening for ‘Rumors of War’ at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. He had a marching band in the middle of the street. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Then I went to the Guggenheim to see one of Marina Abramović’s performance pieces in ‘Seven Easy Pieces,’ where she was lying on a bed of candles for an extended period of time. It was the first time I’d seen performance art. I was suddenly having all these mind-blowing experiences, and I felt like, ‘Yes, this is where I’m meant to be, right here.’”

Nina Chanel Abney, Baking and Caking, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

It proved a wise move that would lead to Abney’s future success in the art world. For her thesis show at the end of her MFA degree in 2007, she painted Class of 2007, a two-panel piece that is nearly 10 feet high and over 15 feet wide, in which she depicted her all white classmates as Black inmates and herself as the blond, white prison guard. Though she had not yet stepped into the signature style for which she’s now known, the painting was the beginning of Abney’s technique of filling a canvas with multiple, almost disorienting themes all at once. This element of her work, which she calls “information overload,” reflects not only her interest in multiple subjects but also her experience with the increasingly chaotic, daily stimuli of our environment, especially with social media.

“We consume so much varied and disparate information every day,” Abney said. “We can scroll down from images of a wedding to images of someone who just died, to posts about shopping for a sweater. Part of what my work does is mirror back to the world what seems to have become a way of life. It’s also a way for me to process what I’m sometimes complicit in or allow myself to engage in.”

Nina Chanel Abney, Where’s the Remote, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

However, Abney’s thesis painting was more a reflection on race, identity, and public narratives. “I was thinking about being the only Black person in my class, and about the disproportionate number of Black men in prison,” Abney said. “Then I was also inspired by Adrian Piper’s calling cards and this idea of an element of surprise for viewers in regard to being invited to think, perhaps uncomfortably, about identities and narratives. I wanted to draw on all of these elements in that piece.”

Class of 2007, which caught the interest of what turned out to be Abney’s first gallery representation, Kravets Wehby, was later shown in the traveling exhibition “30 Americans,” which premiered at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami in 2008. It was a significant career milestone for Abney, the youngest artist in an exhibition that included the likes of Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas, and other accomplished and emerging Black artists. But her growing success came with what felt like limiting expectations about what she could or couldn’t focus on as an artist, or what she was supposed to convey and how she was supposed to depict it. It took another 10 years for Abney to fine-tune her own artistic voice and honor her creative sensibilities.

Nina Chanel Abney, Helen with the Drip, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

When her 10-year retrospective, “Royal Flush,” was organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2017, Abney was able to reflect on the development of her work. “In the beginning, I had felt this burden of content,” she explained. “Being a Black artist, and coming from a traditional program, I had this idea that I had to try to render a figure realistically for it to be considered a good painting. In my undergrad figure drawing classes, I was always getting negative critiques because my figures would come out boxy and abstract and stylized. Looking back, I think that not coming into my graduate program from art school allowed me more flexibility in where I draw inspiration, and gave me more of an open mind about how I could approach my own work. It helped me eventually be okay with finding my own style. By the time I had the Nasher show, I could feel this evolution of my work that felt reflective of my interests—graffiti, abstraction, and figuration. I felt like I was coming to a point of culmination of what’s actually me.”

Abney feels making art is not so much about storytelling as it is about presenting scenarios and experiences—whether her own or those of others—from multiple perspectives for people to reflect on. “I struggle with the idea of being thought of as a visual storyteller in a way that considers my work a cohesive narrative,” she said. “I don’t want to be prescriptive or inform someone how they should think, and that’s part of why I veer towards abstraction. I’ve been called a political artist, even to the extent of articles claiming I’m spearheading the Black Lives Matter movement through painting. These issues matter to me, of course, but what that does is put an expectation on me as an artist to create certain types of work when I’d rather just paint about the issues that interest me, whether that’s about race and politics, or just about Black people enjoying nature.”

Nina Chanel Abney, Off, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Nina Chanel Abney, Cut Em’ Off, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What Abney’s work does, through its vibrant, sometimes comic and cartoonish abstraction, is raise complex issues about race, sexuality, justice, identity, politics, and religion. She approaches these issues in ways that are palatable and seemingly non-threatening, but nonetheless, she leaves poignant images and challenging, arresting questions in the minds of viewers.

For Abney, keeping an optimistic approach and an expansive view of her life is vital for sustaining a sense of personal health and well-being, in a country where being Black and queer can lead to ongoing challenges and often traumatic experiences. “Yes, when you’re Black and queer, crazy things happen in the world because of those things. That’s part of my daily life,” she said. “But another part of my daily life is that fact that I’m just a regular human being like everyone else.…My work is a place where I can sometimes use caricature, absurdity, and ambivalence to process some of the heavy issues and experiences, even grief. But my work is also a place where I want to feel free to bring up any topic or subject I’d like to focus on.” At times, addressing these important topics can feel as though there’s an onus on her to explain her content, to explain issues like racism as though “it’s a foreign thing outside of the other person’s awareness if they are not Black,” she said. “We all experience and are aware of racism regardless of which side of the experience we’re on.”

Nina Chanel Abney, If You Wanna Ride, Don’t Ride the White Horse, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Nina Chanel Abney, Taking my Flowers, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Rather than being prescriptive, Abney is more interested in starting conversations with her work. She presents themes with some ambiguity and without bias, aiming to show multiple perspectives. At times, she even adds thematic elements in her work that she may personally disagree with. “It’s a way to also challenge myself, to think about something from many different viewpoints,” she said. “Sometimes it’s what helps me come to my own conclusions about something I’m not yet sure about. I did a show that was commenting on police brutality and I wanted people to see images of a white officer arresting a white male, or to think about, what does it mean for a male officer to arrest a female? Or another Black officer to arrest a Black male?”

Her current exhibition, “The Great Escape,” is a noticeable departure from Abney’s information overload canvases. The 22 pieces, all created during the pandemic, afforded her, she said, much-needed breathing room. The emotional weight of the pandemic, plus Trump and the heavy racial tensions, forced Abney to take some time to think through all the thoughts and feelings she was trying to process. It eventually opened up new spaces of reflection.

Nina Chanel Abney, installation view of “The Great Escape,” 2020, at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“When I stopped engaging with the news for a while, it gave me more room for my imagination, where maybe I was restricted without even realizing it,” she said. The fruits of an expanded imagination began showing up in her work. “Eventually, I started painting again, and gave myself permission to explore imagery that maybe I didn’t feel like I could take ownership over, that I feel like I didn’t have the luxury to do before for some reason, like painting a landscape, or people doing ordinary things in nature. The experiences of this year have really made me question what has influenced my imagination up until this point. White supremacy has had such a great impact on the wider imagination. In so many ways, it’s shaped the expectations we’ve accepted on so many levels, even as artists, what we imagine constitutes our creative boundaries. I think about this with my paintings, but also with television and movies, and so much of what we consume. I want to hold myself accountable to expanding my outlook and letting that show up in my work. I don’t have to present these topics if I don’t want to. I do want to, but if I also want to paint some flowers, I can. In some way, that’s part of the title of this new body of work. ‘The Great Escape’ from white supremacy, even in my craft.”

Nina Chanel Abney, Storytime - Learn How to Read, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In sharp, angular, geometric shapes and forms, the brightly colored paintings—created with spray paint, acrylic, tape, and stencils—focus on the daily activities of Black people living in a fictional oasis based on the idea of Black queer social utopias. The show explores the relationship between Black people and nature, property, and land, a theme itself fraught with a painful and complex history in America. But in Abney’s visual world, male, female, transgender, and nonbinary characters are reaping the benefits of their intentional Black community. In her works, we see figures feeding chickens, horseback riding, catching prize fish, canoeing on a river, cutting flowers from a field, cooking pies, watching TV, roasting marshmallows around a campfire, or riding bicycles alongside a forest.

Abney shared that the idea for these works came to her while she was spending significant time in upstate New York during quarantine. She was reminded of how relaxing and rejuvenating nature can be. But even in the midst of these beautiful, natural spaces, she still encountered Trump signs and other reminders that someone like her could never feel fully free from toxic ideologies against her personhood. “It led me on a deep dive, to think about buying all this land, and what would it mean to do something like that permanently, by yourself or with friends,” Abney said. “Because I’m Black and queer, I was thinking about my community, and so initially I thought of this imaginary place as a Black, queer, and trans arcadia, because those individuals have even less opportunities for these sorts of spaces. But ultimately, it’s a space for everybody. I wanted to recognize the importance of naming the absence of these spaces of safety and belonging for us. We come close to having that feeling when we’re in spaces with people that feel like family, and that can look like many different things. But I wanted to imagine that kind of place that perpetually feels that way.”

Nina Chanel Abney, installation view of “The Great Escape,” 2020, at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Abney said she intentionally left the specific place or historical time of the paintings vague because she wanted the possibility for people to reflect on their own great escapes, both physically and mentally. For Abney, the idea of a utopia or arcadia can live in one’s mind; she nods to powerful moments where one feels they can just exist without thinking about their safety or being on some sort of emotional, if not physical, defense. I asked her to imagine she actually lived in the community she’s painted, and to try and describe to me the most tangible feeling that rises to the surface for her.

“It’s the feeling I had when I went to South Africa for the first time, and I was not Other,” Abney said. “It’s not about living in a place where there are no white people. It’s about not being sidelined. It’s about what I imagine the majority, someone who by numbers and by privilege, must feel on a regular basis. What I felt in South Africa, I had never had that feeling before. It was even different than just being in the midst of a predominantly Black neighborhood.” For Abney, the feeling was inexplicably deeper. She imagines she’d feel a similar way living in one of her paintings.

Enuma Okoro