Nina Chanel Abney: Seized the Imagination
Jack Shainman Gallery
9 November - 20 December 2017
Review by Torey Akers
At what extreme do tech and trauma intersect? The shortest answer might simply be “exhaustion”.
America was founded on the systematic and unrelenting subjugation of black people, but as the ability to digitally disseminate evidence of recent atrocities expands, the collective threshold for processing such an informational salvo seems to fray with each passing case. For marginalized folk, the burnout compounds itself; police brutality and infrastructural racism aren’t new concepts, and the burden of explanation weighs heavily on those who find their basic human rights up for debate in discussions local and legislative alike.
It’s fitting, then, that Nina Chanel Abney’s painterly depictions of these issues hijack the frenetic, overwhelming visual syntax employed by online news media to truly tumultuous effect. The pieces on view in her current solo show at Jack Shainman, Seized the Imagination, pulse with references ranging from Jacob Lawrence to Snapchat, inviting the viewer into the eye of a cacophonic storm where narrative breaks down into tragic, confrontational nonsense. The paintings drain as they entertain – a potentially snide nod to white cube culture and its tokenistic takes on oppression.
With the exception of one, all the works on display are assembled the same way; Abney chooses a ground color and populates its acrylic flatness with a mixture of hand and spray-painted symbols. Her optic glossary is bright, economic and purposefully reductive, for instance, she uses the same stencil for the white cat in ‘Whet’ (2017) and the orange cat in ‘Black and Blues’ (2017); same goes for the birds in ‘Untitled’ (2017) and ‘Mr. Baker’ (2017). While her meme-ified interpolations of history painting hit hard, it’s the brilliant through-line she draws between graffiti and Internet commentary that helps the project transcend. Each painting boasts its own annotated feedback loop. The artists emblazons pieces like ‘Penny Dreadful’ (2017), a large canvas illustrating community outrage at a police shooting, with the words ‘WOW” and “NO”. In ‘COP’ (2017), a smaller portrait of a weeping, mullet-covered pink figure in frantic company with abstracted brown faces, hearts, and birds, features “COP” and “WOW” amid a sea of dollar signs and question marks. The four-paneled behemoth ‘Untitled’ (2017), a violent series of bloody, combative vignettes, reacts to itself with exclamations like “SOS”, “W.A.” and “OK”. These interventions destabilize the hierarchies typically present in figurative painting by framing each artistic move as an act of vandalism. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to deface; instead, Abney has masterminded an experiential comment section in real-time, confronting the viewer with the impact of screen-mediated surface engagement in a truth-fluid world. Abney isn’t remixing experience; she’s scrambling the hell of it.
There seems to be a dichotomous relationship between specificity and standardization at play in Seized the Imagination. While occasional zeitgeist-adjacent signifiers prove easy to recognize, the activity afoot isn’t immediately identifiable. Each figure operates as a cipher, sporting iconic identity markers that help the viewer establish some vague response. Abney’s audience bears witness to reified over-saturation, fielding color, composition, meaning, context and claustrophobic compression at breakneck speeds. A sense of helplessness creeps throughout the gallery, masquerading initially as queasy, awkward guilt. The pieces are scaled in immersive proportions, but onlookers aren’t necessarily drawn forth. Rather, we float in the shallow, synthetic dimensions that often serve as the delivery system for newsworthy upset. In abstracting ourselves, we are abstracted. Abney’s paintings resonate with vibrant foreboding - an exhausted populace is an uneducated one.