Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush (A Two-Part Exhibition)
California African American Museum and Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
September 23, 2018—January 20, 2019
If art careers were measured in poker hands, Nina Chanel Abney would definitely be pulling a Royal Flush, the title of her double survey exhibition. Both shows collectively trace the productive trajectory of Abney’s decade-long career to date. Seen in succession, her brash and powerful works culminate in a provocative advocacy for the relevance of contemporary narrative painting.
Originally conceived for the Nasher Museum at Duke University, Royal Flush was curated by Marshall N. Price, whose interest in Abney’s work began with her appearance as the youngest member of 30 Americans. This groundbreaking group show, selected from the Rubell Family Collection of contemporary African-American art, has traveled the U.S. since 2009, and will end its 17-venue tour at The Barnes Foundation in 2020. The exhibit 30 Americans gave (and continues to give) Abney exposure within a stellar cohort, ranging from Kerry James Marshall to Carrie Mae Weems.
In Royal Flush, Price and Abney chose to represent the artist’s work in the years subsequent to 30 Americans (2008-2012). These are expressionistic and powerful amalgams of political and personal content. There are echoes of James Ensor’s macabre clots of masked characters in “Randaleeza” (2008), for instance, where Abney depicts then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a grotesque caricature. Rice is portrayed with her teeth bared, her scorched, tattooed skin optically grating against an acidic green background. Everything about “Randaleeza” is discordant, from the keyed-up chromatics to Rice’s sloppy bikini: it manages to be bleak, funny and vulgar all at once. Isolated in the left third of the piece, Rice is depicted as grimacing and vacant, strangely disconnected from the intense drama unfolding at her side. The central character of this conflagration is Randal, based on a friend that Abney used as a model. Randal’s crouching figure is caught in the throes of a pitbull attack, in what turns out to be an allusion to Michael Vick and illegal dogfighting. The Vick affair was reported in a luridly exaggerated manner that smacked of racism during the summer of 2008, dominating the news cycles more than any concurrent story. All these strata of content in “Randaleeza” comprise a perfect storm of Abney’s early obsessions: the optics of race and gender in the media, the ambivalent role and exploitation of African-American figures in the public eye, and personal narratives and symbols that weave in and out of non-hierarchical compositions at the whim of her fervid imagination.
Since 2008, Condoleezza Rice’s political influence has waned and her star has faded, but the painting “Randaleeza” endures as a visceral yet timeless display of disgust. The same is true for the prescient “The Party’s Over” (2008), a withering take on both the white-dominant media’s preoccupation with Bill Cosby’s trials and the moral failure of Cosby himself. This phase of Abney’s work culminates in “I Dread to Think” (2012), a multi-paneled, epic-scaled composition that looks like Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), crossed with a WPA mural.
With regard to Abney’s surfaces, her paintings after “I Dread to Think” avoid even the occasional drip or expanse of transparent color in favor of crisp, graphic layering. This fulcrum point in her process is perfectly illustrated in the collage, “First and Last” (2012), which combines vestiges of her original handling of pictorial space with these newly emerging strategies.
It’s tempting to credit this shift on Abney’s participation in a workshop celebrating Romare Bearden’s collages. While Bearden’s direct use of cutout forms might have provided Abney reinforcement, many other antecedents come to mind, from Stuart Davis, William H. Johnson’s wartime “Jitterbugs,” and Kara Walker’s silhouettes. At any rate, the outcome for Abney’s production was a flatter space, built up from solid masses, patterns, stenciled words and generic shapes (like teardrops, arrows, etc.) that refer to emojis and social media static. The last five years of work in Royal Flush (2012-2017) represent Abney’s exploration and development of this denser approach to image making. The relative efficiency of her latest process allows the work to be printed, or translated into public murals with greater ease. The downside is its repetitive, formulaic nature, which makes one painting blur anonymously into another.
Abney’s subjects remain as confrontational as ever in this later phase, with police brutality and discrimination often in the center of the action. A series of work chronicling a certain “Pool Party at Rockingham #1” (2016) evinces a refreshingly kinky side to her topics. Abney was recently quoted as saying, “For me, progress for the black artist in the black art world is when we don’t even have to be called ‘black artists.’ Why can’t we just make our work? It has to be about blackness or race…where white artists don’t have to think about those things. They can just make things.” Clearly, by simplifying her forms, Abney is searching for a more universal approach to “just making things.”