Extending across two large canvases, Nina Chanel Abney’s Untitled (XXXXXX), depicts two policemen detaining a kneeling man; the painting is striking and powerful. Set against a flickering, fluctuating ground, their simplified and stylized bodies are overlaid with flocks of birds, swaying fronds, and rhythmic geometries all rendered in bright color. Celebrated for her paintings that filter political, racial, and sexual themes through a graphic aesthetic, Abney’s works challenge social assumptions. Untitled (XXXXXX) was painted in 2015, during which time her painterly practice engaged with issues of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of her most powerful works were created in the aftermath of the fatal police shootings such as those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but Untitled (XXXXXX) flips the narrative by depicting two black officers arresting a white male. The work is simultaneously nuanced and provocative. It is as if Abney has conjured another world, one which “broadens the scope of…racial power dynamics that poison American culture” as a means of imagining new possibilities and new futures (L. Preston Zappas, “The Remixed Symbology of Nina Chanel Abney,” Contemporary Art Review, December 13, 2018, https://contemporaryartreview.la/the-remixed-symbology-of-nina- achanel-abney/).
Celebrated for her paintings that filter political, racial, and sexual themes through a graphic aesthetic, Abney’s works challenge social assumptions.”
Her colorful overlapping forms recall the work of the early American Modernist painter Stuart Davis, plus Henri Matisse’s playful Cut-Outs composed of paper and gouache. By experimenting with these two materials, Matisse was able to formally unite line with color, an act that has resonated in Abney’s paintings in which stories are presented as superimposed forms. For both artists, the collage aesthetic provided a new means for expressing and understanding the world. “Collage,” Abney has said, “really piqued my interest in how to layer flat shapes or flat elements in a way that could give the illusion of perspective” (N. Chanel Abney quoted in E. Rawles, “Nina Chanel Abney Imagines a Queer Black Utopia,” T Magazine, November 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/t-magazine/nina-chanel-abney-queer-black-art.html). Indeed, in the flattened forms of Untitled (XXXXXX) reside the vestiges of Abney’s earliest collages including First and Last, 2012, a diptych she created as an homage to Romare Bearden for an exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In these works, Abney’s colors jostle vibrantly to produce patterns and figures that appear to envelop one another.
This aesthetic has remained foundational to Abney’s compositions both as a visual strategy and a form of narrative structure. Her paintings often resemble frozen frames that were seemingly snipped from a reel of film, perhaps owing to the influential role of cartoons in her practice. As a child, Abney spent time sketching Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and she later chose to study studio art and computer science with the goal of becoming a graphic designer or animator. It wasn’t until she moved to New York City to pursue an MFA at Parsons School of Design, however, that she began to feel painting was her correct path. Class of 2007, her breakout work from her degree show, features a similar role reversal as can be found in the present work. In her earlier painting, Abeny portrays herself as a white prison guard, watching over her fellow classmates. Both paintings were shown in the influential exhibition 30 Americans, which opened at the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, before touring across the nation. The exhibition featured works by Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and Basquiat, among others and is widely regarded as being one of the most important exhibitions showcasing Black American artists in the last thirty years. Untitled (XXXXXX) was also included in Abney’s first solo museum exhibition, Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush presented in 2017 at the Nasher Museum of Art, North Carolina.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).