A white woman with blond hair and a gun stands guard over a prison population full of black and brown faces in Nina Chanel Abney's painting Class of 2007. The work is a self-portrait of Abney as the lone white figure, sort of an inverse of Adrian Piper's Self Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features. Each of the painting's black inmates are portraits of her classmates at Parsons—all 18 of whom were white. Class of 2007 is on view as part of a 10-year survey of Abney's work, titled Royal Flush, at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, NC. And though it's the oldest painting included in the exhibition, its tongue-in-cheek depiction of race and policing bookends themes that run throughout the artist's body of work.
The painting is also an early example of Abney's affinity for swapping out the races of her subjects, an approach that she continues to develop in paintings like Pool Party at Rockingham, which depicts naked black men giving naked white men piggyback rides (a reversal of the photograph Abney based the painting on). Her painting Where shows black cops strong-arming white civilians, a reversal of all-too-common scenes of racially-driven police brutality.
Abney was propelled to success by her inclusion in 30 Americans, a game-changing exhibition that put her in the company of artists like Kara Walker, Barkley Hendricks, and Jean-Michel Basquiat when she was still in her 20s. But Abney resists a classification as a black artist, and continues to play with race as a fluid concept in her paintings.
"Being white is just understood as being the standard," she tells Creators on a phone call from her studio in Jersey City. "So you're given the distinction of being a black artist instead of just being an artist."
In Royal Flush, you can trace Abney's painterly evolution from early paintings like Class of 2007, which are filled with specific, at times personal, subjects like President Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, and the artist's classmates. Other works incorporate stencils, flat colors, and repeating, emoji-like symbols.
"The whole reason I began using symbols," Abney says, "was just to simplify my work so that anyone looking at it can make their own connections."
Moving away from the style of painting that resulted in Abney's early fame—big, dripping brushstrokes and caricatures of well-known personalities—might have seemed risky in less qualified hands. But Abney is part of the sliver of America's population that was born before the internet but after hip-hop, and she's witnessed the digital era roll in like a thunderstorm. From the Rodney King tapes to The Real World to Instagram, technology has become the primary influence on visual culture, and Abney's newest paintings speak the language of someone fully immersed in the digital realm but capable of detaching from it, like an anthropologist documenting her hometown.
"I think about the way my mom uses the phone or the internet," she says. "It's kind of like she realizes she has to, but there's not really a connection to it. And then someone like my younger sister, she's always used the internet and it's always been part of her everyday life. But for me, I feel like I've witnessed it happen. And so that's why it's very interesting to me, and it's a little scary to know how quickly all these things have happened."
Her painting Untitled (FUCKT*E*OP) incorporates the concepts that have been a throughline in Abney's career, namely the racially charged relationship between police and civilians, with an onslaught of shapes, numbers, symbols, and a color palette that's as much Memphis Group as it is Cross Colours.
"In different paintings, the numbers mean certain things," she says. "Some are birth dates or some other symbolic distinction. Sometimes I just throw things in to throw the viewer off from trying to attach any meaning to it." Abney's mastery of pop culture combines influences from television, politics, the internet, and art history in equal measure—for a truly contemporary artist, there is no higher aspiration.
Nina Chanel Abney's exhibition Royal Flush is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art through July 16.