Fire and energy radiate in Nina Chanel Abney's spellbinding work, which is timely, but not transient. She creates catalysts for substantive, political dialogue firmly rooted in humor, abstract ideas, and the raw experience of life—essentially, all the elements of staying power. Carefully crafted visual mash-ups demand your gaze as veiled symbols reveal themselves slowly. If you feel uncomfortable, it says more about you than the art. These paintings don't tell you what they're about. They throw that question right back at you. What are you about?
Kanye should've put Nina Chanel Abney's work on a cover, but we beat him to it. She suggested him as an ideal collaborator for her next museum show, and he should not sleep on that invitation. In the meantime, Nina let me throw some questions her way as I tried to avoid being blinded by the ultralight beams of her rising stardom. Get to know Nina Chanel Abney and get your life.
Nina Chanel Abney: That is accurate, though, at times, I feel like I am regurgitating the information I take in directly onto the canvas and distilling it when I evaluate the end result. One of the positive outcomes of information overload is that I have endless resources to pull inspiration from. I have also broadened the connections I am able to make between seemingly disparate things and subjects.
Mostly, but because of the way I paint figures and use bright colors, I think the work is inherently going to be more light-hearted. However, in my last solo exhibition, Always a Winner, the subject matter was so dominant, I thought it would be more effective to be less light-hearted. I did not, by any means, want to make that show nice or palatable. It was purposely intrusive. In the past, my work has been described as easy to swallow, hard to digest.
I think I had done one or two paintings where cops were a subject prior to Always a Winner. When thinking up a body of work, I pull from current events, and unfortunately, though police brutality has been going on as long as there have been cops, it was at the forefront of most news stories when I was creating work for my show. I didn't specifically intend on becoming a part of the Black Lives Matter conversation. A symptom of this age of information overload is that things are quickly and conveniently forgotten. So I intended on returning back to creating more political work, and using the platform that I have to continue the discussion about police brutality. I am not working with police figures at the moment, but elements from Always a Winner have found themselves in the work I have made since that solo exhibition. I utilize certain elements from previous works until they organically exhaust themselves.
I would probably say Why or What from Always a Winner. There were so many conflicting opinions of that show in general. There were people who definitely enjoyed that body of work and praised me for touching on police brutality. There were others who accused me of reverse racism (insert eyeroll emoji). There were people who felt that I was only using police brutality in my work as a way to get publicity. I typically try not to look at the comment sections of my reviews, but for this body of work, I anticipated a broad range of responses and was excited that I was able to create a body of work that got people talking.
A lot of my earlier work had a specific message, but now my paintings are definitely like abstractions of a conversation I want to have. I've become more interested in mixing disjointed narratives and abstraction, and finding interesting ways to obscure any possible story that can be assumed when viewing my work. I want the work to provoke people to formulate their own ideas surrounding the different subjects in my work.
Yes, there are many, especially since I have been creating my own stencils. Over the last few years, I have been fascinated by emojis and the idea that one symbol can take on so many different meanings. I am very intrigued by how emojis and gifs are appropriated. As a result, I've begun making different symbols, as well as using different images repeatedly, in an attempt to create my own language, and also so the viewer can create their own meaning for the symbols if they choose to.
My most frequently used emojis would be the nailpolish-painting emoji and the hand-on-chin pondering emoji. I would say the nailpolish-painting emoji is the best one. Amongst my crew, it's the "I told you so" emoji. It's basically a side-eye.
It's a combination of both. Some are directly related to the content, while others are for composition and spontaneity. I do, however, try to pick elements that have multiple meanings.
Words like "No," "Stop," "Yes," and "Go" make people pay attention, sometimes stopping them in their tracks. I create very busy paintings, so sometimes I feel it's necessary to use these words to create small moments of pause, or to attempt to bring your attention to something specific.
Picasso, Léger, Stuart Davis, Matisse, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Peter Saul all inspire me to create as much work as I can and work harder in the studio. I am also motivated by any artist who works diligently. I love visiting other artists. I am inspired every time.
Definitely. I like his use of color and ability to simplify everyday objects in a way in which they are still widely identifiable.
It's been a while, but I went to Austin Lee's studio last. It was very cool. Paint and paintings everywhere. He had some paintings that he didn't like but began to rework. He did a portrait of me. His process seems very loose, and I can tell that he enjoys his time in the studio. He has fun, he tries new things, and that's a swagger I can relate to. It leaves me excited to return to my studio, have a little more fun, and be more experimental and less afraid to make mistakes.
Absolutely. A great example of this is that it would be extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for me to recreate my earlier work. My process is completely intuitive and I definitely just go with what my hand naturally does, and I do think the paintings guide me.
I have expanded my artistic practice to mix, combine, and mash up narratives and ideas. Working with layers helps me to facilitate this concept of the mash-up as a framework to pull inspiration from current events and contemporary culture to create visibly chaotic paintings that unite contrasting ideas.
Before I create a painting, I usually have a very general idea of what I want to discuss within the work, but because I work intuitively, the ideas are simultaneously changing and evolving until the painting is complete.
During my first solo exhibition, I had a woman walk into the gallery, look at the paintings with a repulsed expression, walk out, and come back into the gallery five minutes later to look at the paintings again.
Newburgh, New York, meal prepping, the rapper Newsense of Psychodrama,
raspberry lime seltzer, MTV Cribs, presidential primaries, Diego Rivera, Lemonade,
Soulland, Misaki Kawai collaboration with Tiger Stores, artist live/work loft, Breaking Bad, Butsudans, How To Tell You're a Douchebag by Tahir Jetter, Rick Ross's Snapchat, TMZ, snowboarding, Rob Kardashian working out on the Stairmaster, Veja sneakers, gardening, Amorino Gelato.
This is very true. I am addicted to most shows on Bravo and VH1, and I am completely hooked on How to Get Away With Murder.
Yes, I either watch TV, listen to music, podcasts, or watch documentaries on Netflix. Sometimes it just serves as background noise. Other times, I put things on in the studio that are relevant to whatever I'm working on.
Kanye West, and we would collaborate to create a stage design for his performance.
Not sure what the work would look like, but every painting would be huge. Maybe there would even be some sculpture. Snacks would be all of my favorites from Chicago (Aurelio's Pizza, Harold's Chicken, Garret's Popcorn), plus sorbet and gummy worms.
For the stage, maybe for each song, the stage and dancers would reflect a painting in the show. So, basically, my paintings come to life paired with a Kanye song of a similar motif.
I've done three large, temporary installations which were basically collaged vinyl or wheatpaste. And I have only painted one mural, but I will paint two large murals soon. One for Coney Island Art Walls and the other for the Gateway Project For Empty Space in Newark. When I do murals and public installations, it is a lot more stressful because I am typically on a tighter deadline, but the end result is more gratifying because they are exposed to a larger and broader audience. At one point, I considered doing graffiti under an alias. It still is a possibility. Fortunately, I have been getting more opportunities to do murals and public projects that are legal. Ha!
I figured, but it was worth a shot. Have you always been a painter? Tell me more about your road to becoming a full-time artist.
I have always painted, and wanted to become a famous painter, but I never knew about the art world until I moved to New York. When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College, I double-majored in computer science and studio art. I planned to be a computer programmer, but I eventually realized that I was not interested in programming at all. So then I thought I would combine computer science with art and be a graphic designer. After I graduated from college, I applied to a few schools for graphic design and got rejected from them all.
I wound up working on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company in Chicago. One day, when I was at the plant, my supervisor crossed the line; literally, there was a sign that said, "Don't cross this line." Her leg was crushed by a car and all these people had to lift the vehicle off of her. At that moment, I was like, "fuck this," so I hustled to apply for graduate school to get my MFA. I got rejected by every school except two, and I chose Parsons. I moved to New York and I paid attention to how people were noticed, how it worked if an artist wanted to make a living from her work. Subconsciously, I knew that my thesis show was going to be all or nothing, because I didn't have a real back-up plan.
At my thesis show, my current gallery asked to do a studio visit with me and we have been working together ever since. I've been a full-time artist since the beginning of my professional career, luckily for me, because I couldn't see myself navigating the workforce, being told what to do, how to dress, etc. I think that still drives a part of me now. My drive then and now are equally met, but the difference now is that I have competing motivations, and I'm growing not only as an artist but as a human being.
After every solo exhibition or big project, if my schedule permits, I usually take about a month off. Any longer than that and I usually start to get antsy and anxious about what I'll work on next, and I have to get back in the studio. I think I am like a lot of millennials. We really do enjoy chillin' with our friends and doing a lot of stuff on social media, but then the existentialist always emerges and asks the question, "What am I doing with my life?"
I would say I was blowing up if I dropped a sex tape and a mixtape, but I doubt the former is reasonable. A mixtape is a possibility, though! Seriously, I think it has been a slow and steady climb, but I've gotten much more exposure and attention in the last year. That is something I can appreciate.
Typically, yes, because it's most indicative of where I am currently at in my life. And the newest work is usually more confident than the last work. I usually have resolved an issue from the previous body of work, so the newest has evolved in some way. However, overall, I am never completely satisfied with any painting because I always find something that I could've done differently or better.
I think it's cool that my work is in a position to be responded to. It could be just sitting in my house or in a basement. Any reaction works for me, because it means that, at the very least, my work has had some type of affect on someone. I am able to take something away from all responses, good or bad. Any response is much better than someone just walking right by your work with no response at all. The reactions that move me the most are from young artists who are inspired by it or inspired to pursue art seriously.
Nina Chanel Abney's new webstore with limited edition products opens in June, 2016.