Safe House/Seized the Imagination



Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled, 2017. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 5 panels, 96 1/8 x 60 15/16 x 1 15/16 inches each. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery.

The title of Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibition at Mary Boone, Safe House, caught my attention almost instantly. In such politically charged times, not making a statement is often a statement in itself. Webster’s defines a safe house as “a place where one may engage in secret activities or take refuge.” This led to my intrigue about what one might find at a show with such a title. Of course, Nina Chanel Abney is no stranger to bold statements. She burst onto the art scene a decade ago with her painting Class of 2007 (2007), which depicted her graduating MFA class, in which she was the only black student. She flipped the script and turned herself into a white, blue-eyed, blonde prison guard, and the rest of her classmates into black inmates.

Abney’s aim in this show is to combat the negative stereotypes with which the mainstream media often portrays African Americans. The exhibitions features eight single-panel paintings, two 96-by-96 inches and six 96-by-72 inches, all depicting people engaged in everyday activities that would not be deemed newsworthy. While Abney is primarily a painter, for this exhibition she sourced graphics from old ‘60s comics and posters dealing with households, leisure, and safety, and then proceeded to paint over them. The works bring to mind Stuart Davis and Romare Bearden.

Nina Chanel Abney, In the Land Without Feelings, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 72. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

The message resonates loud and clear. Abney seeks to create a conversation with the work, using the canvas as a means of social dialogue, seemingly mocking the outdated posters with a touch of reality. In the Land without Feelings (2017) shows an African-American man doing yoga while colorful birds and pink hearts look down upon him. Beneath his hands are the words “Official Safety Man,” while amidst the birds and hearts, poster-esque type announces, “It’s great to be alive!” Such tongue-in-cheek statements fill the gallery, with other works exclaiming “Get the First Aid Right Away” and “Watch Out For the Other Guy! Uh oh Black, Oh no Blacks.” While the serious message in all of these works is clear, the poster-esque depictions also lend an air of playfulness, occasionally emphasizing Abney’s message of racial unity while other times undermining a topic that is undoubtedly one of the most vexing in our nation.

Ultimately, these thought-provoking works showcase Abney’s ability to draw her viewers into her world. Having always been a political artist, Abney reflects this nature in her new show, but fails really to push the conversation in any particular direction. Too often, Abney’s works bring up an idea only to stop short of allowing her viewers to confront it, seemingly bringing it to center stage and leaving it there, disengaging with the topic. This lends to the exhibition a seemingly stream-of-conscious quality, with Abney’s initial idea made clear but no further guidance should one seek to push the conversation further.

Nina Chanel Abney, In the Land Without Feelings, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 72. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Abney’s concurrent exhibition, Seized the Imagination at Jack Shainman Gallery, features similar work to Safe House. However, Seized the Imagination melds a confident ability to paint with a nod to the current technology-driven state of our society. This work appears a bit bolder, the Davis and Bearden influences on full display. While Abney seems very tongue-in-cheek in Safe House, at Shainman her work explodes in color. She works in a variety of sizes, ranging from 84-by-120 to 48-by-36, as well as a five-panel untitled work. The contagious pace is also noticeable in these works, as there appears to be a narrative to the works, yet no clear indicator of how that narrative is to be perceived. The lone work in the first gallery, Penny Dreadful (2017), an acrylic and spray on canvas, shows two police officers grabbing a man while two civilians shine flashlights, an ode to police brutality in the era of cell phones. Hands clicking cell phones are depicted in the far left corner while the right side of the painting features a car overwritten with the words “FUCK TRUMP” and “WOW.” The panel painting in the main gallery, Untitled (2017), addresses the topic of violence, with each panel making note of how violence begets violence, ending with two white police officers—both red in the face, as if about to pounce into action—standing above a sign reading “And-Niggers.” These works seem to allude to a state of helplessness in the face of turmoil, with Abney seemingly admitting that with so much going wrong it is often easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Abney alludes to this feeling through out the exhibition, matter-of-factly acknowledging that these are emotions familiar to many in 2017.

Both shows provide the viewer with a grasp of what is going on in Abney’s mind and in her desire to be political. As a collaborative two-gallery exhibition, each space highlights Abney’s talented palette, with Safe House allowing Abney the freedom to strike up a conversation with viewers, and Seized the Imagination operating as a reminder that nothing is ever as simple as one might wish. In 2017, being overwhelmed is an experience common to many, but Abney here—albeit with mixed results—seeks to hammer her point home and contribute to the growing political resistance against those who preach hatred and separation instead of love and unity. Undoubtedly talented, Abney further shows her potential in these two exhibitions. But they also beg the questions of whether she has pushed herself in regards to political artwork, and whether she can continue to do so in the future.


Will Whitney

Will Whitney is writer who lives and works in New York.