LOS ANGELES — Nina Chanel Abney is having a moment. After opening at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, the artist’s first solo museum survey, Royal Flush, is now spread across two venues in Los Angeles. Jointly presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the California African American Museum (CAAM) through January 20, 2019, Royal Flush offers a critical look into the past 10 years of Abney’s artistic output, revealing the depth of her paintings, watercolors, and collages.
Abney’s works are typically characterized as narrative figurative paintings that are graphically bold and colorfully striking. The Chicago-born artist is an adept observer of contemporary urban life ranging from sociopolitical realities and abuses of power to celebrity culture and the news media. With an aesthetic that combines influences from animated cartoons, hip-hop culture, graffiti, and even emoji, she has created a visual language that is definitively hers, painting canvases that are as entrenched in political discourse as they are in pop culture.
The date of Abney’s paintings often gives a clue for understanding their contexts. In her 2008 painting “Randaleeza,” she depicts then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica in a white bikini surrounded by agitated dogs and several male onlookers — including one modeled after Abney’s friend Randall (hence the title). The menacing dogs reference the news story of the summer: Michael Vick’s charges for organizing competitive dogfighting. Placing political and celebrity news side by side, Abney creates a chaotic scene that challenges viewers to think critically about the relationships between gender and sexuality, public image, and race. The result invites the viewer to consider the often jumbled presentation of what constitutes the news, and the profuse and ceaseless way information is publicly shared and manipulated today.
A later series of paintings takes on gun violence and police brutality. In “Untitled (FUCK T*E *OP)” (2014), Abney paints a dense composition filled with geometric shapes and truncated text. Six black faces in profile emerge on the canvas, some with a teardrop falling from their eyes, others with a black X painted across their cheeks. The painting is arresting, absorbing you into its composition, just as one might get lost in a news cycle or Twitter feed. Conveying a mood of protest in a manner that balances accessibility and urgency, the work requires the viewer to consider the symbolism of each number, color, pattern, and shape. It is a new way of thinking about how the intersection of representation and abstraction can be translated into sociopolitical critique in the context of the digital age.
Often said to be revitalizing narrative figurative painting, Abney does so in a way that pulls from the tradition of 20th-century public art and mural painting in the Americas. Like murals, her paintings are meant to be read, requiring active engagement to be interpreted. Indeed, the most successful mural paintings narrate through symbols — the significance of an ear of corn or the color red conjure specific associations that create an iconographic vocabulary to interpret the walls. Whether consciously or not, Abney inherently does the same thing, consistently revisiting letters and signs that create a singular visual language.
Not surprisingly, the artist has produced several public works, including a mural at Coney Island and a basketball court in Memphis. Working in acrylic with occasional complements of aerosol spray, Abney’s choice of materials naturally lends itself to wall painting. In her 2018 exhibition Hot to Trot. Not. at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Abney created in-situ frescoes along the institution’s main stairwell. One depicts the busts of three black women against a yellow background, the numbers 1, 2, 3 listed next to them as if cataloguing objects in a museum. Alongside the figures, Abney has simply painted “WHAT?” in black letters — pointedly demanding viewers to consider the composition and then think critically about its meaning. Without offering an explanation herself, Abney reminds us that narratives can be interpreted in myriad ways and through various lenses — the didactic nature of her work becoming that much more impactful.
At both ICA and CAAM, what stands out is the pointedness of Abney’s hand. Her line work is as sharp as her wit, and over 10 years has only gotten more defined. Synthesizing new methods of communication with a satirical sensibility that is at once intricately dense and critically clear, her canvases present narratives that offer new ways of engaging with some of today’s most critical topics.