Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibition “Royal Flush,” which surveys the ten years of her career to date, begins with a bang and ends with a digital plink. Upon entering the show, the viewer is confronted with Abney’s MFA thesis work, Class of 2007 (2007), a large two-panel painting showing the artist (the only black person in her year) as a white prison guard and her classmates (most of whom were white and none of whom were black or dark-skinned) as black inmates in orange jumpsuits. It’s a witty comment on racial imbalances in the art world, coupled with an invitation for audiences to reflect on the inverse imbalances that exist in America’s prisons. Kitty-corner from this opening salvo—moving from a drippy Alice Neel figurative style to a punked-up ’50s cartoon modernism—is my favorite work, Close But No Cigar (2008). This seven-by-twelve-foot two-panel painting is based on the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. Instead of King on the ground is President Obama, with his brain popping out of his ear. Howling and gesticulating above him are not King’s civil rights colleagues but rather a ragtag troupe of tramps and hipsters in corsets, bunny ears, mustaches, and clown face paint. The painting was made the year of Obama’s inauguration, and is prescient considering the ensuing (and continuing) character assassination of America’s first black president.
In 2009, Abney began searching for a cleaner and flatter style—with uneven results. The weakest works are smallish canvases she made in a paint-by-numbers manner, mixing figures from art history and pop culture to create mock classical portraits, religious icons, and fairy-tale scenes that comment on topical social and racial phenomena. Around 2012, geometric abstraction and a horror vacui of ornamental doodads displaced Abney’s investment in figurative caricature. She began to turn toward a looser, stencil-and-spray paint “street”-graphic version of Stuart Davis’s jazzy modernism, to which she added schematic African American heads crying and yelling. Her trajectory reads like a progressive attempt to reverse engineer midcentury American modernism to encompass a more socially inclusive and contemporary range of people and themes.
While the products of this revisionist project are visually punchy, Abney has struggled to marshal it toward effective commentary. Her most ostensibly political paintings are the most lightweight on this count. She has garnered accolades for her paintings on police brutality, with Vanity Fair (to the artist’s discomfort) going so far as to describe her as a representative painter of Black Lives Matter. The two paintings from this series at the Nasher (both 2015) play on the racial role reversals she first exploited in Class of 2007, showing black cops barking at and arresting white men. Scattered about are words and word fragments like black, kill, and rica (as in America presumably), in addition to numbers and numerous Xs. Paintings on other topics similarly include flat verbiage like yes, wow, and go. One suspects that Abney is trying to be funny in a Pop art way, but her verbo-visual arrangements ring too tinny to be witty. Many have too little force even to be accusatory.
Happily, adjacent to these paintings is Catfish (2017). In this eighteen-foot-long four-panel work, which refers to online identity poseurs, Abney’s juxtaposition of stilted form and hot subject matter is far more effective. Eight women, their bodies 8-bit Picasso-esque abbreviations and their faces emoticon-era Mr. Potato Head assemblies, pose naked with their asses out toward the viewer. Crossing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and booty selfie culture, Catfish is perhaps meant as a parody of primitivism’s racial and sexual legacy. More than that, the painting succeeds in putting modernist abstraction in dialogue with digital-age sexuality, comically exaggerating the complicated human desires that can infuse virtual representations even when they are schematic or overtly put-on. Abney has a canny sense for geometric design and art history; I hope she finds a way to apply it as interestingly to political topics as she does here.