Through July 16
Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

Nina Chanel Abney is an apt artist for this political moment. The ten-year span of work represented in Royal Flush at the Nasher, her first solo museum show, focuses on race, gender, and identity politics as well as criminal and social justice issues in ways that are critical but not didactic, ambiguous but never vague. This feels crucial in a time of problematically entrenched, opposed public arguments.

Abney, born in Chicago and based in New York, refutes any dualistic view of humans and social systems, and she colors in far more than shades of gray between black and white poles. Her paintings and collages vibrate with density and activity, optically and narratively, in characterization and composition. Royal Flush includes about thirty of them, plus a large wall mural she painted at the exhibit’s entrance. Together, they combine aspects of cartoons and street art with portraiture and landscape in a uniquely restless way. In a walk-through with the INDY last week, Abney discussed how she subverts the narrow assumptions the art world habitually brings to depictions of race and gender.

INDY: Your work has a clean and messy aesthetic. In this mural, for example, you have these perfect, taped-off shapes. But you’re not completely filling them in with spray paint, leaving evidence of your gesture with the can.

NINA CHANEL ABNEY: It’s been a progression to that. At first I was really drippy and painty. Then that became a tighter way of working. Now I’m at the point where I’m trying to combine both. I’ve done some work that was organized messiness too. I would allow certain sections where I would be messy within a square.

How do words and numbers function in your work?

Sometimes I’ll see text more as a shape. But I also like to throw the text in for the content, or to throw someone off for assuming a certain content.

That seems like an important phrase for you: throwing somebody off.

That’s become an important part of my process. In some of my earlier work, I feel like it was a more straightforward narrative, but over time I became more interested in abstracting narrative. Also, I just naturally got to a point where I wanted to draw from a bunch of different references. I didn’t want to place a specific meaning onto the work. Text, symbols, all of thatusing it to create multiple meanings.

It seems like a lot of black artists right now, at least from a critical standpoint, are forced into either bearing witness or putting forward an ideology through their work, which kind of reduces it to documentation or protest signs. But you seem resistant to both.

That’s my goal, to resist that stuff. Early on, when I was doing more portraits, I had noticed how so many assumptions are put on you. If I paint a black figure, it’s already read a certain way. It’s going to be assumed that I’m trying to do something different by painting a white figure. So I just try to create dualities and mix the races and genders of the figures. That’s my way of giving myself the freedom of being able to paint whatever I want without it being for a specific reason.

Do you see yourself as a political artist?

No, I feel like it’s a side effect of me drawing from current events in my work, and from my work being very immediate. Obviously I’m going to touch on the news, but I don’t think that’s all that my work is.

You’re taking stencils down to the simplest abstracted forms: hearts and circles and grass and little ovals.

In earlier paintings, I was hand-painting all that, drawing out all those circles and painting them. Now I’ve made stencils. And that also came out of my interest in emojis, being able to simplify something into a form that can take on multiple meanings the same way an emoji can, depending on who’s texting it and in what context.

Context is a big deal now when it comes to an artist’s identity. Do you think of yourself as a black artist? Or as a woman artist? It’s like … what a mess, you know?

I know! I feel like that’s what I’ve been fighting against almost since I started. Questioning those things. And just wanting to make work, you know? I mean, why can’t a white artist paint black figures? Very early on, a lot of people didn’t know I was a woman, just assuming because of the scale I worked on that I was a man. I’m always trying to challenge those things. Obviously I accept that I’m black, that I’m an artist, that I’m a woman. But I try to not let that dictate the kind of work that I’m able to make, or that I actually make.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Full Color”