A review of Nina Chanel Abney : Royal Flush - at the Chicago Cultural Center
Nina Chanel Abney (b. 1982) has been recognized for art about racial identity ever since she received her MFA. The only African American in her graduating class at Parsons, she painted a class portrait that reversed black and white – depicting herself as a dizzy blond holding an assault rifle, and everyone else as a person of color wearing an orange prison jumpsuit . “Class of 2007” soon entered the Rubell Family Collection, one of the world’s largest privately owned and publically accessible collections of contemporary art. It did not travel to this show, but many of her subsequent paintings have continued to offer energized cartoonish humor on the surface and racial violence not far beneath. And judging by the collectors and museums listed on the labels, most of it has met with similar success.
Abney can demonstrate a dynamic sense of design, an exciting feel for color, and a fluency with the linear contours of the human figure. As shown in her online videos, she also has a remarkable ability to compose large, wall size paintings on-the-fly without any kind of working sketch or plan. She just tapes up the surface and reaches for the cans of spray paint. As this ten-year retrospective reveals, however, she has not always worked this way. Her earlier work demonstrated complex line drawing and brush work. Then she switched to larger areas of flat color in acrylics. Then she began to use spray paint with tape and stencils. Most recently her paintings have begun as polychrome prints that were designed on a computer. Some of her latest work, like the monumental four panels called “Catfish”, is still quite dynamic overall. But as she stuffs the smaller areas with all the circles, triangles, and generic symbols that characterize her style, they begin to feel as busy and contrived as the designs on playing cards or currency. They reflect the reality of investment grade art. She’s not just making art -- she’s also making money.
In interviews, Abney has often asserted that she wants her work to be open to multiple interpretations. Indeed, some pieces, like “Double Click” (2012) appear to be intentionally confusing – with an assortment of numbers, faces, text, and amorphous shapes that appears to express some kind of puzzling dismay. Other pieces, like “Money Tree” (2008) clearly have a specific personal meaning. It includes a self portrait front and center. But only the artist knows who are represented by the disembodied faces above and beside it. In some pieces, an intended meaning, even if conflicted, seems more clear. “Catfish”, for example, is a depiction of beautiful young female bodies. The voluptuous contours echo the Arcadian fantasies of Matisse, while heavy black X's over the genitals assert a prudish reaction. “Pool Party” (2016) depicts bi-racial, male couples playing chicken fight in a suburban swimming pool. It seems to say this game is sexy and fun – but also silly and childish. Abney is rather ambivalent about sexuality - possibly she comes from a devout religious background.
One piece, however, “FUCK T-E –OP” (2014) has a meaning that is both clear and straightforward. It expresses outrage over then recent events, like the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri where a black teenager was shot and killed by a policeman. There’s no ambivalence here – the young black men with crossed out gentle faces are innocent victims, and the artist blames law enforcement itself, not just one policemen. But as she steps up to take a stand, the viewer may now question her wisdom. Doesn’t this successful artist and her wealthy collectors need policemen more anyone else? Doesn’t this attitude encourage potential victims of police brutality to carry guns and shoot first – as a career criminal did recently on the streets of downtown Chicago? Doesn’t it undermine whatever moral authority her presentation of racial tension may have claimed? Like tabloid media, she flirts with controversy but does not enlighten it. Like commercial graphics, the visuality of her work demands attention but does not satisfy it. Like contemporary academic artists, her semiotics destabilize rather than construct a web of meaning. She's got an exciting, defiant attitude, but is not building a positive African-American identity as Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall have done. She quickly became a successful gallery artist. But beneath the virtuosic surfaces of her work, it feels like her mind is still in graduate school..
Money Tree, 2008
Double Click, 2012
Pool Party at Rockingham #2, 2016
FUCK T*E *OP, 2014