We live in a world of sensory overload, in which news, events, opinions, and gossip are routinely mashed together. For many people who follow reports delivered on social media while dismissing the evening news, Pizzagate had more validity than the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which, according to blogger Alex Jones, was a “false flag op.” Bitterness and resentment run deep in this country, where inflammatory positions and name-calling have superseded dialog and debate.
In her two concurrent exhibitions, Nina Chanel Abney: Seized the Imagination at Jack Shainman Gallery (November 9 – December 20, 2017) and Nina Chanel Abney: Safe House at Mary Boone, curated by Piper Marshall (November 9 – December 22, 2017), the artist employs stenciled shapes and symbols (dollar signs, X’s, teardrops, birds, and cats), while channeling safety posters, cartoons, graffiti, Stuart Davis’s jammed together planes of color, Sister Corita’s serigraphs, Emory Douglas’s artwork for the newspaper Black Panther, and Henri Matisse’s cutouts, to address the prevailing state of incivility, rumor, misperception, and self-righteousness that has descended over America like a radioactive mist, infecting us all.
The eight paintings at Mary Boone measure eight by eight feet or eight by six feet — posters blown up big. All the paintings have a border (green, red, blue, or black), text, and one or more figures (black and brown) that tread a fine line between representation and caricature, and deliver what can be called a mixed or interrupted message.
In “Request One Zero One” (2017), the words “GET HELP” headline the painting in red letters against a white ground. Beneath this warning, Abney has positioned a stylized image of three African Americans on their knees, either praying or beseeching, against a green circle. A large blue tear, matching the color of his short-sleeved shirt, runs down the black cheek of the male figure in the middle. His yellow shoulder patch is likely to remind viewers of a police shield.
Curiously, the noses and ears of the figures are lighter than their skin tones, falling somewhere between pink and beige. (This is true of all the figures in Abney’s paintings in this show). The picture also includes large black X’s; blue, brown, and black handprints inside and outside the green circle; cent signs; yellow, white, and black circles; and red and blue elongated hearts. Amid the formal variety we are left to ask: What kind of help do these supplicant figures need? Is it mental or physical? Who or what is going to provide it? Are they praying for themselves or for others? Who or what are the figures meant to represent?
In another painting, “Non Action Satisfaction” (2017), Abney elides a word in the headline, so that we read: “DEFECTIVE (blank space) ARE DANGEROUS.” In the lower right corner the phrase “THEY SHOULD BE REPLACED” seems to be falling out of the red square behind it, which is one of four making up a grid, three of which containing a cropped image of a black or brown figure who is presumably African American. Two blue circles (or breasts) overlaying the bare-chested figure in the upper right quadrant complicate our reading. By interrupting familiar phrases, pairing them with unexpected images, or adding another layer of signs or words, often in contrasting scripts (R.I.P., WOW, FUUUCK) Abney makes images whose parts do not add up, certainly not in any easily digestible way.
In the paintings at Jack Shainman Gallery, Abney depicts tightly packed, chaotic scenes where it is not clear who are the antagonists and who are the protagonists, or even what exactly is going on. Even so, you sense that whatever is happening is based on some misunderstanding between authority and the populace, uniformed figures and non-uniformed figures. In contrast to the paintings in Mary Boone, these contain Caucasians along with people of color. In each scene there is a scattering of symbols (police badges, guns, dollar signs, tear drops, question marks, X’s), signs of nature and urban life — silhouettes of birds, cats, and fish — and one-syllable exclamations (No, Wow, Go, Ow). Some of the poses are raunchy. The comic and grotesque seamlessly mingle.
As you begin unpacking the scenes, certain details hint at violence while others depict it. In fact, if violence and brutality aren’t already exploding, as in the image of the white boxer walloping his brown adversary, then they are about to (a green gun floats just beneath someone’s hand, and what appears to be a nightstick hovers behind the butt of a man in jeans). This latter scene recalls the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a broomstick by a group of New York police officers in 1997. One officer is currently serving a 30-year sentence.
With all of the recent cases of a police officer pronounced innocent of shooting an unarmed black male, this 20-year-old incident of police brutality is never mentioned. And yet the distrust, anger, and fear that this incident engendered form the edge upon which Abney locates much of her work — the recognition that abuse and violence are an integral part of the everyday consciousness of people of color. The only misstep in the exhibition — and it is certainly an understandable one — is when she writes “Fuck Trump” in a work. This collapses the painting into a message. As hard as it is to admit, Trump is just a symptom of a larger, more pervasive current of hatred running through America’s veins. In most of the work in both exhibitions, Abney seems to have her hands on the pulse of that loathing and all its guises.
Nina Chanel Abney: Seized the Imagination continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 20; Nina Chanel Abney: Safe House continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.