A Conversation: Nina Chanel Abney

When I met Nina Chanel Abney on the occasion of her FOCUS show at The Modern in Fort Worth, she had just returned from South Africa where she spent three weeks. This much needed vacation was taken after her critically acclaimed duel solo shows opened at both Mary Boone Gallery and Jack Shainman in New York on the same night. Through her friendly smile, she mentions that she will be flying out to Paris in the morning for her show at Palais de Tokyo then flying back to open her solo show in her home town at the Chicago Cultural Center on what would end up being a very snowy day. About a week after our conversation, Abney was a recipient of a grant from the Tiffany Foundation. Needless to say, she has been busy. - Arthur Peña, Texas Contributor

Hobson's Choice, 2017, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 84 ¼" x 120 ¼", Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; Museum Purchase.

Arthur Peña: I would think that using spray paint helps with keeping up with your schedule?

Nina Chanel Abney: For sure. I use acrylic on top because it all dries super-fast.

AP: Do you have a pace you like to keep?

NCA: Not really. I do think the last two shows (at Mary Boone & Jack Shainman) were probably the most paintings I've made in that period of time. I don't usually work that fast but I couldn't pass up that opportunity. It was just no sleep but usually I work a little slower. 

AP: You've mentioned before that the works could take weeks or months to finish.

NCA: It depends if I'm in a good flow. Sometimes I might get stuck on a painting.

AP: What disrupts your work flow?

NCA: It could just be that I don't know how to resolve a painting so I might need to take some time away. In between working there is a lot of sitting and staring at the painting because it's all intuitive so that also slows down my process. Making these shows (at Mary Boone & Jack Shainman) forced me to make immediate decisions but typically it's just a lot of staring and then getting up and painting a little eye over here or something like that.  

AP: So much of the work for a painter is the looking. Has it been harder to find the time to sit and look?

NCA: I still have the time to look but maybe I don't have the same amount of time to ponder a little more or second guess myself. Now, I just do it. Which is a good thing, I guess; the fact that I just put something down and I'm ok with it and I let it be.

Hobson's Choice (detail)

AP: Do you find yourself coming back into the work and painting over things? 

NCA: I think I used to do more of that in my older works but now I try and say, "This is what it's going to be!" But also now that I'm working with spray paint, it's not the same to paint over so if I make a mistake it's a little more difficult to recover from. I have to be good with whatever I'm putting down.

AP: Your work has been described as frantic and chaotic but I'm reading them as an overload of visual pleasure and I don't just mean formally. They are almost generous in that you give us so much information to play with, so many ways to build a narrative.

NCA: That's what I wanted to do. When I think about how I look at a painting and how I experience it, I want to have the ability to come back to it in a few years and discover new things and not get bored with it.

Black and Blues, 2017, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 84 ¼" x 120 ¼". Private Collection, NY. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

AP: In your talks, you've discussed how South Park and Family Guy are subversive in their ability to deliver social commentary. There's also an absurdist sensibility to the humor and storytelling in those shows; are you also interested in the farcical quality of how the narrative unfolds?

NCA: Yeah, I think so. I like making things that seem like there is a story but there really isn't. I purposely pull from different scenes and put them together. I think what is actually absurd is how we will go to a piece and want all the answers immediately and only ask, "What does this mean?" I think that detracts from the art and from us being able to participate in the work and build our own connections. I think my sarcasm comes from that. "Oh, you want to know what it means?" So, I'll put little things in to make you go in one direction then I'll put something else in to switch it up and pull you somewhere else.

AP: So, really leaving it open to all kinds of readings.

NCA: I'd rather have someone make a personal connection to the work and have to brainstorm and use their imagination to figure out what these different things mean than have one set meaning that I give them.

Black and Blues (detail)

AP: The overspray marks reinforce certain areas of form and space while reading the same as a gestural, painterly mark in that they both point back to the maker. Again, I think your work is generous in this way as to let us in on the process.
NCA: The painting is built from back to front and it's really just a layering process. It's been fun to learn how to translate my work when I do work outdoors because I can't use a spray can the way some other artists do because I can't just spray out a figure. I'm figuring out tricks to learn how to translate how I work and do what I want to do.

AP: Can you talk about the protestors in this painting?

NCA: On my way to creating this piece there were protestors in my neighborhood so that immediately put something in my mind to use as a reference. And I think just seeing over the last 2-3 years all of the protests happening and even here in Ft. Worth, on my way to the hotel there were protestors speaking against police brutality outside a building in downtown.

Untitled, 2017, Enamel on panel, 90" x 294", Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

AP: It's fun to see the rhythm of the figure throughout the surface and how it's almost mutating across the painting. Because the form has stems and eyes we will accept it as a figure no matter what else is going on. How far are you interested in pushing the human form? Is the shifting body a part of how you want to complicate our understanding of the narrative?

NCA: Well, I think about how through social media and our phones, everything is being simplified and how you just need a little information to say what you want to say. That's why I started using stencils and symbols because then maybe I don't have to paint this whole elaborate scene to get across the idea of grass, all I really need is a just a few green blades of grass and we get it. It's like how I can have a whole conversation with my friends only using emoji's. We've created our own simplified language.

AP: Does your work ever act as a relief in that you can get something out of your head? Are these works emotional in any way?

NCA: I kind of feel like it's my journal. The work lets me process all of the things I take in, in a visual way.

Untitled (detail)

AP: Do you feel better after you make a painting?

NCA: I guess I feel I better once all the work is done and I get to relax (laughs). Then I'm nervous, "Are the paintings ok?" Then, I have to think about how do I proceed. After I do a large body of work I turn off for a little bit but I have to so that I can replenish my ideas.

AP: How did you learn that you need that break from working?

NCA: Say I'm working on a show and I'm immersed in it, I do the work then I'll make a few paintings afterwards to exhaust all the ideas. If I'm going to move onto something else, I have to do that because you'll create some things that will still have some residual stuff from what you were doing before, so I'll make a few more paintings to get it out of my system. Once that happens, I feel like I can take a bit of a break. This time I went on vacation so that I can see a few new things but usually my break is watching TV, just completely chilling.

AP: When you make work while traveling, does the work embody a sense of where you are?

NCA: I think so. I try to explore and talk to the people. That shows me what the place is and how it can stir things up a little bit in my mind. I feel like being an America artist traveling I kind of get a pass to come in and do whatever I want. And maybe residents of certain areas don't have the luxury to express themselves in that way. If I can help get other people's voices heard, that's what I want to do whenever I travel and make work. I might be able to say the things that they feel like they can't.

AP: Because of the speed at which the work is getting made and given how open the sources are, it almost seems like at some point you would reach a place where the work becomes a premonition of sorts because you're so tuned in to the culture. Maybe you're making something that isn't true but becomes true.

NCA: A few times I've found that some things I paint will happen. I think because I allow my paintings so much freedom that they can evolve. They don't feel like they're dated because a lot of the things that happen in them is just part of a recurring cycle. Certain things just keep on happening.

Untitled (detail)


FOCUS: Nina Chanel Abney runs through March 18th at The Modern in Fort Worth, TX.

Arthur Peña is the 2017-2018 Visiting Assistant Professor in Painting at the University of North Texas.