Artist intentionally gives mixed messages

The Nasher’s “Royal Flush” exhibition features Nina Chanel Abney’s energetic canvases, which aim to disrupt traditional narratives.
Writer: 
April 19, 2017

When Marshall Price came to interview for a job at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art in 2013, he discussed an exhibition he was already mulling: Price wanted to feature emerging artist Nina Chanel Abney. Price got the job. He’s now Nancy Hanks Curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nasher. That turned out to be good news for Abney, whose bright, energetic canvases now fill several galleries in an exhibition titled “Royal Flush.” And it’s not bad for museum-goers, who can now lose themselves among thirty images filled with cultural references, people with cleverly mixed or multiple gender or racial characteristics, and shapes and symbols from everything from computer screens to graffiti.

The mixture is the message, Abney says. “The whole idea of it for me is to create things that are seemingly disjointed and unrelated and put it together in a way that it appears to be a seamless narrative. So by mixing races or gender, that falls into that whole thing.”

Price first saw Abney’s work in the “30 Americans” exhibition at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami in 2008. “I recognized immediately her willingness to confront serious issues and to do so through humor and satire, and also in a way that disrupts conventional narrative,” he says. “Dealing with them in a subversive way that resonates maybe not immediately consciously, but in a way that may be subconscious.” The Nasher exhibition, which Price curated, is Abney’s first solo museum show.

The images cover more than a decade, showing Abney’s progress from more to less straightforward representation. The first piece in the exhibition, “Class of 2007,” presents the members of her otherwise-all-white M.F.A. class—though with typically African-American hair, skin tone, and features, and with details like chains, rubber gloves, and other indications of mistreatment. She paints herself as a blonde white woman striking a Patty Hearst pose with a machine gun.

Since then, Abney’s work has become less representational and more iconic. “Null and Void,” from 2009, groups three figures in a traditional lamentation scene straight out of Christian iconography. But faces and figures also have become far more stylized, as have gestures and other elements, as two figures of uncertain gender and race, one wearing a mask, lament over a third. Price calls this flattening and simplification of style “emojification,” as faces and gestures become more and more like the icons familiar from representations of exits or public facilities, or like the emojis and symbols seen on screens. In Abney’s more recent work, she shifts from brush to spray can, and her visual vocabulary becomes simpler and more symbolic. Lines, triangles, circles, and other easily stenciled objects recur from painting to painting.

An X can be a letter, but it can also be negation, over a mouth or other body part; a circle can be a knee, an eye, a breast, a nipple; a fan shape that shows up in several paintings can be plants, hair, or speech. “As I began to try abstract narrative,” Abney says, “I wanted to build on a narrative where different symbols could mean different things.”

The pieces never stop addressing gender and race. In an untitled piece from 2012, profiled faces try to communicate through speech triangles representing everything from rainbows to profanity; other numbers and letters begin showing up, as do shapes: arrows, circles, and… keys? Musical notes? Bones? Are the figures in the two frames of “Pool Party at Rockingham” wrestling? Playing chicken? Flirting? Fighting? Part of your job as viewer is to figure it out; as always, Abney says, the goal is to “leave it broad enough that anyone could come to the work and kind of bring their own story line to it.” Even images of police interactions cast gender, race, and power as fluid and uncertain, raising rather than answering questions.

The most recent image in the exhibition is a thirty-foot mural Abney painted on a wall at the entrance to the gallery: guns, faces, hearts, tears, letters, geometric shapes, all on a black background. It’s a perfect introduction and a perfect summation, as well. “In one article they called me a conversation starter,” Abney says. “I guess that’s the best way to describe my goals for my work.”

“Royal Flush” will get people talking in the Nasher until July 16, after which it will travel to Chicago and Los Angeles.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.