Nina Chanel Abney is Selling Out (In a Good Way)
This talented artist ended up on her own waiting list.
About Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney is an American artist, based in New York. She was born in Chicago, Illinois. She is an African American contemporary artist and painter who explores race, gender, pop culture, and politics in her work. Her work uses symbols and bright colors to present new ways of approaching loaded topics as she invites viewers to draw their own conclusions. Blending the playful and the serious, Abney has said that her work is “easy to swallow, hard to digest.”
Abney attended Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois and received a BFA with a dual major in studio art and computer science in 2004. Abney then received an MFA at the Parsons School of Design in 2007.
In 2007, Abney got her first big break for her painting Class of 2007, which she painted for her MFA thesis show. The painting is a diptych. In one panel, she is depicted as a blonde officer carrying a gun. In the second panel, her MFA classmates, all white, are painted as black inmates in orange uniforms. The painting was purchased by the Rubell family, owners of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Florida.
She is best known for her colorful graphic large-scale paintings, four of which are included in the 30 Americans exhibition organized by the Rubell Family Collection of works by African American artists of the last three decades, which has toured museums and galleries in America since 2008. Her work has also appeared in the Whitney Museum, the Jack Shainman Gallery, as well as the Kravets/Wehby Gallery in Chelsea.
Dirty Wash was Abney's first show, hosted at Kravets/Wehby gallery in the spring of 2008. Attracting many major collectors, the show sold out within days.
Her first solo exhibition in a museum, Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in February 2017. Curated by Marshall N. Price, the exhibition included about 30 of her paintings, watercolors, and collages and spans 10 years of her work. The works contain a wide range of art historical references, including medieval icons, Northern Renaissance still lifes, and artists such as Henri Matisse and John Wesley. They illustrate narcissism, celebrity culture, the objectification of women, issues of race, and police brutality.
Connect with Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney: I don't even know if I honestly enjoy the actual act of painting. I just enjoy that I'm able to create what I want to—whatever's in my head, or whatever world I can make for myself on this canvas. But the actual act of painting can be tedious.
But, for as long as she can remember, Nina Chanel Abney's gift for painting has been obvious. Still, love did not a career make. And after graduating from Augustana College with a degree in studio art in 2004, Abney didn't quite know how to move forward. So she accepted a job on an automobile assembly line. But the frustrations of this job quickly drove her back to school.
Abney: When I first got to grad school, that first day of class, I was crying, because I didn't know any art theory. I didn't know all the things you're supposed to know in an MFA program or in grad school as an artist. Quite honestly, I feel like, by the end of grad school, I returned to what I was doing in the beginning—just, I guess, in a more informed way.
AJC: And a more confident way?
Abney: And a more confident way. It's so intuitive, and I'm just throwing all these things together. Sometimes, I don't necessarily see the bigger picture until long after it's finished. And maybe I'm writing something about the work, and I'm almost researching myself, and going back to try to say, "Oh, I wonder why this was in here." And then I see the correlation.
One piece for which Abney's inspiration was obvious: a portrait of her class at the Parsons School of Design. In addition to flipping the skin colors of herself and her classmates, she put them behind bars, with her as their jailer.
Abney: We could talk about racism, but I want to find a way where you could experience something without us having to have a conversation. So what would it mean for someone who's uncomfortable about black people if they're turned to a black person unknowingly? I asked everyone if I could paint them, but I didn't tell them what the painting would look like. 'Cause, at the time, I wasn't even quite sure. So I was curious about the response once I flipped the painting over, and everyone started to recognize themselves, and what their response would be. Would some people be angry about it? Or, if they were uncomfortable, what does that mean? So that's how that painting came about.
AJC: And how was the response?
Abney: It was mixed. Some people thought it was fun, some people seemed uncomfortable, some people questioned if I was angry for making that work.
If she were to make that work today, it would probably sell before the paint was dry. These days, Abney's paintings are so in demand that she herself is even on her own waiting list.
AJC: Does that feel like all of your children went off to college a little early?
Abney: I mean, now I've been thinking about that, and trying to make work for myself. So I maybe own, like, three of my own paintings. So now I'm fixing that, I guess.
Nina Chanel Abney is one of those artists who seems perpetually dissatisfied, always striving for the unobtainable—but not without hope.
Abney: I've always had this ideal painting in my head, like this ultimate painting that would have different elements of what I've done over the past years. That painting would have how I worked in 2007, mixed with all the things I've done. So I feel like my ambition is to work towards that painting. Every body of work, everything I try, is to lead up to, I don't know, this—
AJC: A masterpiece.
Abney: Yeah, a masterpiece.