Artist Spotlight: Nina Chanel Abney

By Bonni Stanley

Chicago born, Nina Chanel Abney (b. 1982) is one of the most exciting, provocative and thoughtful contemporary American artists today. Her career has seen a steady rise since she came on the art scene in 2008. Abney’s work is influenced by her personal experiences as an African American woman, as well as by the media, technology and the news. Although her work addresses issues of race, including the Black Lives Matter movement, Abney states, “For me, progress for the black artist in the black art world is when we don’t even have to be called black artists. You know, why can’t we just make our work?”

Her paintings, prints and collages address issues of social justice, racism, sexism and the objectification of women, and the sensationalization of celebrities and the news. Abney challenges us to think about issues as she bombards us with images and information that is often confusing and may cause distress. Despite the weight of her material, she uses bold, bright beautiful colors and fills her enormous canvases with images. One is drawn to the vibrant, engaging figures and designs. Abney’s work is multi-layered and complex. She presents ideas and parts of stories, but she pulls back from giving us answers. She states, “My goal for every painting, no matter what subject, is to keep it neutral enough where all perspectives could be brought in and represented. That’s why I started creating the figures in a way where you might not tell if it’s a man or a woman, or you can’t really place one label on a figure and the painting wouldn’t give you a definite story.”

Abney’s early work, 2008-2012, is painterly in nature. One can see drips, variation in color and brush strokes. Since 2012, her work has taken on a digital dimension. She works increasingly with spray paint and templates. The images appear to have flattened and there are larger, broad areas of unmodulated color. Many of her shapes have become more abstract and take on characteristics of the digital realm. Abney has been interested in ‘emojis’ or emotional icons and has experimented with developing her own symbolic language.

Abney’s work has been largely influenced by Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, and Faith Ringgold. There are also clear similarities with Kerry James Marshall, in that they both present personal social commentary in large scale, colorful works. In her young career, Abney has already enjoyed several exhibitions and was featured in the 2008 Rubell family collection exhibition, 30 Americans.

Nina Chanel Abney, Mad 51st, 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, Collection of Jeanne Williams and Jason Greenman, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Nina Chanel Abney

Abney’s work is currently on view at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, Florida (February 9, 2019-June 25, 2019), the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York (February 27-June 30, 2019) and Mary Boone Gallery at 541 West 24th Street in Chelsea (January 12-March 2, 2019).

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Bonni Stanley is a docent at the Neuberger Museum of Art and the Katonah Museum of Art. She has a life-long passion for modern and contemporary art and enjoys visiting galleries and museums in Manhattan and wherever she visits. Bonni is a social worker, has two adult children and has resided in Bedford with her husband for the past 25 years. 

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