A decade ago, artist Nina Chanel Abney had her breakout with a striking piece of agit-art. It was an oversized painting called “Class of 2007,” a portrait of Abney’s class at New York’s Parsons School of Design.
Abney was the lone black student in the class, but she rendered herself as a white, blonde and blue-eyed prison guard – watching over her classmates, who she depicted as African-American inmates.
“I’m still in touch with a lot of these people,” Abney said recently, looking at “Class of 2007” on a gallery wall of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art and pointing to different figures. “Nick Van Woert, he’s an amazing sculptor. And Langdon, Dave, Jen. But it got a mixed reaction at the time.”
Abney paused to laugh a bit.
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“That was welcome,” she continued. “Especially now, I want to make work that gets multiple reactions, not just one. I’m very intentional about creating work that gets a mixed response, and every interpretation is welcome. I want to start conversations and arguments, for viewers to participate in the work and have their own personal relationship with it.”
“Class of 2007” attracted widespread attention and was part of 2008’s “30 Americans” exhibit in Miami. That’s where curator Marshall N. Price saw it – which led directly to the painting’s current place in Durham as part of “Royal Flush,” a career-spanning exhibit of about 30 of Abney’s pieces.
“She really stood out, which was really saying something given that that show was just filled with luminaries,” Price said. “Nina’s paintings are not only provocative in terms of imagery and narrative, there’s also a historical component to different levels. There’s a protest spirit about it that you see in a lot of work from the ’60s and ’70s, and I love the notion of protest-painting.”
Now 34, Abney was born in Chicago and got started the same way a lot of artists do, copying things she liked. Her efforts grew more serious in high school, finally crystallizing into the politically charged works she began producing in college – brightly colored, coursing with racially charged images both abstract and concrete.
Not long after “Class of 2007” came “Dirty Wash,” inspired by a combination of celebrity gossip and political scandals. Abney painted an image of a friend of hers reacting to a bikini-clad Condoleezza Rice, who was President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State at the time.
She’s a humanist in the most generous sense of the word, conveying the human condition and the idea that humanity holds its destination in its own hands.
Nasher curator Marshall N. Price
Then there’s 2008’s “Close But No Cigar,” based on photographer Joseph Louw’s iconic picture of the immediate aftermath of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. Abney imagines the scene as a garish burlesque, with Barack Obama, who was still a candidate and not president when she painted it, wrapped in an American flag. The site and year of King’s assassination are represented, Lorraine Motel and 1968.
“My earlier works like these were more narrative, with clues to what they’re based on,” Abney said. “But over time, I shifted to more abstract narratives, stripping away the backgrounds to take away specific meanings to latch onto. That really informed the collages I started to do. Then I got a studio in Times Square, and between that and the overload of information – news and Facebook and everything else – it all started to feel like chaos. There was no one story, but many stories. All of them fragments.”
Becoming a brand
In recent years, protests around the “Black Lives Matter” movement have given Abney ample raw material to work with. A lot of her paintings from the past few years depict confrontations between African-Americans and white law-enforcement officers, but Abney declines to do much in the way of explaining.
“She doesn’t give a lot away,” Price said. “But her work is very thought-provoking. There’s always something resonant to take away. We’ve been working on this show for several years, and it becomes more timely with every passing moment. That only underscores its urgency. I think she’s a humanist in the most generous sense of the word, conveying the human condition and the idea that humanity holds its destination in its own hands.”
Beyond painting, Abney has lately started working with computer printouts while pondering a move into photographs, sculpture and even branding. She’s working with a brand manager now, which means her artwork might be coming soon to a product near you.
“I’m trying to see if my work can translate into other media,” she said. “Creating a sneaker, partnering with some brands. Not too many artists are doing both, and there are concerns that too much commercial work dilutes your fine art. But it’s a fun challenge to see if I can conquer both.”
Meantime, Abney is also doing temporary murals, which are every bit as striking as her paintings. She spray-painted one on a gallery wall at the Nasher for “Royal Flush,” dashing it off in a couple of days. And it’s beautiful, if temporary, which doesn’t concern the artist.
“Eh,” she said with a shrug and a smile, “I’ll just make another one somewhere.”
What: “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush”
When: Through July 16
Where: Nasher Art Museum, 2001 Campus Drive, Durham
Cost: $5 adults, $4 age 65 and older, $3 non-Duke students. Free for children 15 and under, Nasher members, Duke students, faculty and staff - and everyone Thursdays, 5-9 p.m.
Hours: Closed Mondays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
More info: 919-684-5135 or nasher.duke.edu/abney