THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Artist Nina Chanel Abney poses with her work, First and Last, part of the Nasher Museum’s collection, and featured in the exhibition “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush.” Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo by J Caldwell.
Nina Chanel Abney, Mad 51st, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Collection of Jeanne Williams and Jason Greenman. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion. © Nina Chanel Abney.
by Rebecca Memoli
Keith Haring, one of art’s earliest cartoon-style practitioners, is expertly paired with a female artist, Nina Chanel Abney, whose art reflects similar connection, in an exciting exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. Their canvases bring a sense of raw energy and attitude to those Beaux-Arts galleries.
Keith Haring’s Chicago Mural project was earlier on view at Midway Airport and removed while the airport was undergoing renovations. Haring’s style and way of working is intuitive and scarcely, if ever, planned out.
The exhibit’s accompanying video shows Haring painting the black outlines of the mural directly onto 488 feet of white painted wood panels. The outlines were then filled in over one day by 500 Chicago Public Schools students. Haring came to the city at the invitation of a local teacher, and the Chicago Mural’s creation was celebrated with a Keith Haring Week in May, 1989.
Haring managed to create a style that is quick to make and easily read. His philosophy about art was that it should be accessible to everyone. He gave the same amount of effort to a large painting as to a chalk drawing in a New York City subway station. It makes sense that, with this philosophy, he would be devoted to creating the Chicago Mural and donating his time to a project that united and inspired so many Chicago students.
The partial mural on display covers two adjoining walls of the Sydney R. Yates gallery. Shades are drawn over the windows; the lighting is quite low and moody, giving the mural a strange, monumental quality. There is stark contrast between the ornately decorated walls and the weathered-looking mural.
A doorway leads visitors into the Exhibition Hall where Nina Chanel Abney’s “Royal Flush” is on view. “Royal Flush” is a survey of Abney’s work over the last ten years, including collages and several large-scale paintings. Abney uses mixed media, including spray paint. Like Haring, she rarely sketches or plans her pieces, instead working quickly and intuitively.
Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 108 inches. Collection of Kamaal Fareed. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion. © Nina Chanel Abney.
Several of Abney’s paintings address issues of police violence. In these pieces, the police appear as both black and white. Untitled (IXI Black) shows a black cop in a verbal altercation with a white man. The eyebrows of both figures are key for discerning this situation. The white man’s eyebrow angles downward sharply and the red dot on his cheek shows exasperation. The look on the policeman’s face in contrast is one of worry as his eyebrow angles upward. One can’t help but wonder at how different this painting would feel if the races were reversed.
Untitled (XXXXXX) depicts two black policemen restraining a white man with a police badge—another cop, or, intriguingly, a man impersonating a cop—who has no legs but appears to be in a kneeling position. Stenciled birds and plants fill the center of the canvas and obscure most of the text except for the word KILL. In both paintings, Abney represents black cops and creates a storyline for them, a perspective that seems overlooked in media accounts. Her narrative is one of retribution for the lives taken and a call for accountability.
The style of Abney’s more recent work is similar to collage but still remains large scale. I found the ghoulish painted figures in her earlier work more interesting to look at than the flat, solid planes of skin tone in her newer work. However, this approach is clearly a way of simplifying the imagery and language and helps her build a complex, yet cohesive, narrative. This direction is quite compelling.
Nina Chanel Abney, Catfish, 2017. Unique ultrachrome pigmented print, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas, 102 × 216 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion. © Nina Chanel Abney.
Abney’s most recent work, Catfish, consists of 4 panels of posing and contorted bodies. Their forms complement Haring’s energetic shapes, visible through the doorway into the adjoining gallery. Each panel has a flat, colored background, and the addition of figures, stencils, and text create movement and depth.
The accompanying text takes on an interesting role, being both symbolic and alphabetic. X’s appear in the background as well as on the figures. Each panel gives the sense of instant judgment that we experience in today’s web-driven culture. Viewers are guided from panel to panel by the text.
Although each scene is explicit, it is not clear what is driving these qualifying phrases: NOPE… WOW... YES… NO? The movement through this painting feels very much like swiping or scrolling from profile to profile on Tinder or Instagram.
Abney and Haring have a unique way of reflecting current cultural trends. Haring’s work was iconic for his AIDS era. The vibrant colors and expressive black outline are indicative of a cartoon-like quality that now creates a feeling of nostalgia. Abney is more interested in the use of emojis as a means of abbreviating language through symbols. The language is condensed, which allows her narrative to be more complex. It feels quintessentially millennial.
The exhibition of Abney’s provocative work, paired with Haring’s Chicago Mural, makes a bold statement about art’s intrinsic ties to the culture of its times.
Composite of a portion of the Haring Chicago Mural made from photos taken by Marcelino Y. Fahd.
Keith Haring, A Chicago Mural, and Nina Chanel Abney, “Royal Flus.” at the Chicago Cultural Center, Exhibit Hall, 4th Floor North, February 10–May 6, 2018 (Abney) and March 3–September 23, 2018 (Haring)
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual.
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