Nina Chanel Abney
Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA - Oct 1, 2022 - Feb 5, 2023
“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” said James Baldwin. Nina Chanel Abney disrupts accepted social narratives with her signature brand of pop primitivism – large-scale paintings and boldly graphic collages where themes of politics, Black culture, sex and the media jostle inside a single canvas.
For her exhibition at the Henry, Abney’s work opens onto a wider vista – the great outdoors. The COVID-19 lockdown inspired Abney, now 40, to escape the confines of her Jersey City studio on road trips into the rural backcountry. These forays raised a question: What would a nature-steeped, autonomous Black community look like, a sanctuary where leisure and economics flourished in equal parts, unlinked to urban tension and the ubiquitous White gaze?
The works in Nina Chanel Abney focus on Black fishing culture; at first glance, they communicate the bright, uncomplicated joy of a summer’s day. But looking closer a complex environment is revealed, one where unsettling details arise like a hard strike on a fishing line. The religious symbolism of the fisherman is unloosed, pointing toward human exploitation and environmental corruption. In Sea & Seize (2022), a fresh catch that includes abnormal, three-eyed fish and crustaceans is laid out on ice next to a Black human head and severed White and Black hands, all neatly displayed with pricing. And yet, this provocative exhibition stubbornly recognizes the transcendent possibilities of nature, a realm that Abney has previously summarized as “a figuration of refuge and radical reparation.” In a graphic style reminiscent ofRomare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, Abney deploys a vocabulary of flat, sharp-edged symbols to describe an opaque, enigmatic world.
Nina Chanel Abney, Sea & Seize, 2022, collage on panel