Nina Chanel Abney Royal Flush
Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University
February 16 – July 16, 2017
From the outset of her career, painter Nina Chanel Abney draped identities over her characters as changeably as clothes. Her thesis work, Class of 2007 (2007), depicts her school cohort in negative, with Abney—the only black student in the class—as a white prison guard, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, with assault rifle in hand. Her classmates, depicted as black prisoners, don orange jumpsuits and manacles. The conceit is simple but powerful, tying a critique of art institutions to wider social concerns, and jarring subjects and the viewer into an unsteadied sense of self.
The work is on view, alongside the ensuing ten years of Abney’s oeuvre, at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art; it is Abney’s first solo museum show. The works are broken up into four chronological groupings, which trace both the maturation of the artist’s style and her engagement of changing features of American life from 2007 through 2017.
Other early works of Abney’s marry a similarly raw style with discomfiting subjects. In Close but No Cigar (2008), Abney repurposes Joseph Louw’s stirring photograph of the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Hotel, with King’s companions pointing toward where the fatal shot came from. On Abney’s large canvas, a stricken King-Obama composite lies on the ground swathed in an American flag, his brain plopped fully out of his head. Behind, a frothing mass points wildly, not at the fallen hero, but at a mysterious faceless figure in a yellow leotard and with a bleeding heart—perhaps the assassin, perhaps Hope herself set to wing.
By 2009, Abney’s painting style had become less wet, her drips more controlled, and both figures and backgrounds flatter. A series of group-portrait style pieces demonstrate a focus on American celebrity culture and a dip into the world of fantasy. In Make it Reign (2009), an male-ish figure with breasts leans back, tongue-out, like a rock-star deep in guitar solo, a stripper pole instead between his/her legs. But in place of a sexually attentive crowd, two dogs bark menacingly. The substitution of one type of attention for another highlights the fickleness of a crowd’s emotion.
After 2011, Abney’s style again shifted, now combining her flat color fields with muralistic elements to create vibrant canvases that often embedded social commentary. Mad 51st (2012) includes some elements that recur as motifs of many of her works thereafter: Xs peppered across the canvas, staccato words deployed playfully or plaintively—often both—and bright geometric shapes. The work harkens clearly to Stuart Davis’s surreal, energetic landscapes-cum-dreamscapes. Hands and faces float among bright shapes, uttering “oy” and “boo.” One X lies atop a kiss between what appear to be white and black male figures.
In school, Abney studied computer science as well as visual arts; her work after 2011 traces the increasingly chaotic information environment as the digital began to creep more intricately into personal lives. Her early focus on the public gaze as something monstrous presaged the rise of social media to ubiquity. She graduated the same year the iPhone debuted, before social media and attention merchants unleashed the public gaze into the most intimate reaches of private life, before the idealism of early web giants gave way to the need to turn profits through cascades of junk information and accompanying advertisements.
Abney’s canvases became more chaotic and busier to reflect these emerging realities, even as they returned more explicitly to political messaging as well. Untitled (Fuck T*e *op) (2014) revisits, in larger format, the sensory dynamism of city life. In all the colorful excitement, it takes a moment for the six black faces (with white noses and lips) to emerge fully. This was the year that the shooting of Michael Brown sparked the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the faces hoot out short words, some cry. The largest has one of the floating Xs slapped atop his mouth; another has an X over his ear. One woman wails in a floating blue circle, red bullet holes dripping angrily beside her. Nobody seems to hear. Noise is everywhere. “Pow” is scrawled out in one nook. “Ow” echoes back.
The newest work in the show, Catfish (2017), revisits Abney’s focus on gender, as women white and black bend over raunchily in four panels, one man standing amid them under the word “wow.” Alongside her usual graffiti motifs, stenciled dollar signs dot the canvas, and pyramids of eyes hover. There is no subtlety to the sex on display; it is gaudy and cynical, a spectacle for our viewing pleasure. And the money flows, and the women submit, and the world keeps watching, always watching.
SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.