Figurative painting is the art of representation. It’s taking something that is real, tangible, and recognizable and using any number of mediums to create it again. With figurativism the artist can present exactly what exists or they can form greater contexts and appoint new meanings. Some artists choose to create narratives so we get a glimpse of how they see the world unfolding.
Nina Chanel Abney is an artist who truly tells a story. For the past ten years, she’s been creating large-scale works that use a bold, graphic style to create narratives about racial politics, sexuality, gender, and violence. She uses hip-hop culture, celebrity gossip, video games, and the 24-hour news cycle to represent our reality, taking recognizable symbols and reflecting them back at us in a style that’s as dizzying as modern life can seem.
The New York-based artist’s first solo show in Los Angeles, Royal Flush, also happens to be her mid-career retrospective. Thirty of the artist’s paintings, watercolors, and collages—made between 2009 and 2017—will be on display across two museums, the California African American Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, through January 20, 2019. Curators Naima Keith of CAAM and Jamillah James of ICA LA have both been fans of Abney’s work and thought this was the perfect opportunity to collaborate on a show.
Abney began her career in 2007 when she graduated Parsons School of Design and her thesis painting, Class of 2007, caught the attention of the art world. In it she painted her white classmates as black prison inmates and reimagined herself as a white prison guard. Since then her work has evolved as the times have changed. “My process is intuitive and the work is really a reflection of the time in which they were created,” she says. “It’s fun to go back, because they are almost like time capsules.” The pop-culture references change, the contexts shift, and so do the stories that need to be told.
Royal Flush traveled from North Carolina to Chicago before landing in L.A. Abney hasn’t spent much time in Los Angeles, but her work is universal. In her paintings, race and gender are turned on their heads. The brutality of the state is not just projected onto black bodies, and the authority is not just given to white figures. Women are objectified in one panel of a three-paneled painting, bending over suggestively; the man doing the objectifying is played for the fool in the very next panel. The small details are packed with meaning and a keen sense of the absurd.
The last eight years have been a roller coaster and Abney’s art reflects that. No matter what the viewer’s experience has been, Abney will show them something they can relate to or learn from. “Everyone can take something from the work,” she says.