Since appearing nine years ago as part of the influential exhibition “30 Americans,” the painter Nina Chanel Abney has established herself as an artist whose work uniquely fuses social commentary and formal play. Below, Abney discusses the evolution of her practice and her first solo museum exhibition, “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush,” organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Currently traveling the country, the exhibition will be close to home for the Harvey, Illinois–born artist when it opens at the Chicago Cultural Center on February 10, 2018.
THIS SHOW gives the viewer a chance to see the growth of my work over the last ten years. That said, I still think you’ll be able to see some commonalities between all of the different bodies of work I’ve done—to see what I have improved, so to speak, and some of the elements and themes I’ve carried on throughout. I hope you’ll be able to see a huge progression between how I was working in 2007 and how I am working now. In 2007, I was working in a way that was more narrative-based, where the story being portrayed in the painting was clearer. In a sense, back then my work had a more definitive position, whereas since then I’ve been trying to find a way to abstract narratives. I think you’ll be able to see how I’ve been figuring that out over the course of my career.
In about 2010, I had a studio in Times Square, and at that point I was in a chaotic environment in more than one sense. I was thinking at that time about social media, information overload, and how we take in a ton of information all at once multiple times a day. I wanted my work to be reflective of my reality at that point. Around 2010, I strove to make the work much more anarchic, to not feel like I had to focus on one subject. This becomes clear in the show—the newer works will probably seem a lot busier, and you’ll be less able to discern a clear narrative. I also want viewers to be able to take different elements and find themselves within the work, as opposed to me dictating something to them.
Somehow, I just finally found myself using painting as my medium. In the last two years I’ve not so much ventured outside the medium, but I’ve been doing a lot more outdoor projects where I use spray paint. Because of this I’ve also incorporated spray paint into my paintings, and, honestly, in the future I’d be open to trying out sculpture and possibly animation. So, I’m not closed off. I tend to go with the natural progression of things, to see where all of this will lead me next. I’m painting now, but who knows what the future will bring?
Current events, social media, and popular culture have always driven my work—basically anything that’s going on in the moment I’m creating the work. Because none of my paintings are planned, everything is completely intuitive. When I begin painting, I have a general idea of what I want the painting to be about, but I have no idea how it will end up looking. Over the last ten years, I think my work has always reflected what was going on at the moment I created it. There’s always been some sense of politics in the work. For my exhibition “Always a Winner,” I focused on police brutality because, at the time I created the work in that show, that was what was filling the news headlines.
I hope that I’ll gather an audience that can relate in some way, or somehow be inspired by what I’m doing. I don’t set out to attract a specific audience; I’m just trying to create a universal language that will bring everyone together to at least start a discussion around certain topics that are hard to talk about.