ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING PAINTINGS in the exhibition “30 Americans” is by Nina Chanel Abney. It’s a compelling work, depicting her MFA class at Parsons School of Design in New York. The artist depicts herself as a bespectacled, gun-toting blonde; Her classmates don prison-issue orange. Bright with color, countless details, and provocative metaphor, the monumental painting stands nearly 10 feet high and measures about 15 feet wide.
Abney painted “Class of 2007” nearly a decade ago for her thesis show. It was the only work she presented and it set the course for her career. The painting gained the notice of Kravets Wehby, the New York gallery that still represents her today, and the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell purchased it. The following year, in 2008, the painting was included in the inaugural exhibition of “30 Americans” alongside works by African American artists Abney had studied in school.
The traveling show featuring works from the Rubbell Family Collection by critically recognized contemporary artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, David Hammons, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Noah Davis, Robert Colescott, Lorna Simpson, Rashid Johnson, Henry Taylor, and Abney, has recently been presented at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Cincinnati Art Museum, and is currently on view in Washington state at the Tacoma Art Museum.
In his catalog essay for “30 Americans,” Franklin Sirmans compares Abney’s work with the likes of Colescott, William H. Johnson and Dana Schutz. He writes: “Taking cues from Colescott, Nina Chanel Abney reminds one also of the mask-like faces of Vincent D. Smith’s paintings and the eccentric primitivism of William Henry Johnson, though she also shares a penchant for the contemporary grotesque with the work of her near contemporary Dana Schutz. The bodies in her paintings are often contorted like a child’s plastic dolls, but menacing—attack of the body snatchers on crack.”
“Taking cues from Colescott, Nina Chanel Abney reminds one also of the mask-like faces of Vincent D. Smith’s paintings and the eccentric primitivism of William Henry Johnson, though she also shares a penchant for the contemporary grotesque with the work of her near contemporary Dana Schutz.” — Franklin Sirmans, “30 Americans” catalog
BORN IN CHICAGO, Abney lives and works in New York. Last fall, “Always a Winner,” her solo exhibition at Kravets Wehby, reflected her evolving painting style and explored a mash-up of issues including police brutality.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts acquired one of her paintings and her work was featured on the cover of Juxtapoz magazine. At the Whitney Museum of American Art, she was one of five artists included in the group show “Flatlands” and, in July, Abney and Lowery Stokes Sims discussed Stuart Davis and painting today at the museum. Next February, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University is presenting “Royal Flush,” Abney’s first solo museum exhibition.
In order to get the backstory on her first major painting, I spoke with Abney about “Class of 2007” and asked her how the painting came about and her concept for the work.
CULTURE TYPE: Tell me about “Class of 2007.” What’s the backstory? When you were working on your thesis show, was it a part of a series or was it a standalone painting?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: It was a standalone painting. For our thesis show, it’s a two-year program and in the last few months you come up with something for the last show. I knew I had to create something pretty major because I was going to graduate and a lot of galleries come to your thesis show to look for artists to represent. I thought I was going to make a humungous painting. I had just started working on that large of a scale, probably in January [the show was in May], so it wasn’t even that long. Before that, I was working much smaller.
CULTURE TYPE: What made you decide to go big?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: I had an adviser suggest that I work on a large scale. With that, I thought I would do a portrait of my class. At the time, I was inspired by Adrian Piper’s “My Calling (Card)” piece. She was kind of passive aggressive in how she approached people at parties. I wanted to somehow evoke that same feeling, so I asked all of my classmates if I could do their portrait, but they couldn’t see it until the opening of our thesis show.
CULTURE TYPE: Interesting.
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Yeah. So they sat for me. I took everyone’s photograph and then I painted them as African Americans and then I decided to paint myself white because, at the time, I was the only black student in my class.
CULTURE TYPE: What was the response?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: I flipped over the painting and they were pretty surprised in the beginning. They didn’t even think I’d painted them and then people started to recognize themselves. I had a pretty mixed reaction from it. Some people were laughing. Some people thought I was angry with them. I could tell some people were pretty uncomfortable by it. But I think it was a success because I wanted a mixed reaction. I wanted to draw out many people who were uncomfortable with it.
CULTURE TYPE: When you set out to do their portraits, did you know you were going to make them black?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Uhm. Yeah.
CULTURE TYPE: Was that to be provocative in general or was that to explore the dynamics and perceptions of race because you were the only black student during your two years there?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: I was trying to think of some interesting way to talk about race in the painting in a way that hasn’t been done. I could easily paint black figures, but I felt that my classmates during previous critiques… I felt like they were sympathetic to certain things, but they couldn’t really relate. So I thought why not just make them black? That was my whole thought process behind that. How would they feel if they were portrayed black? I had one classmate, I don’t know, I just felt it would be uncomfortable for him, so I made him extremely dark skinned. That’s the way I was thinking. I thought maybe they would understand it better if they were just in it.
“I was trying to think of some interesting way to talk about race in the painting in a way that hasn’t been done. …So I thought why not just make them black? That was my whole thought process behind that. How would they feel if they were portrayed black?”
— Nina Chanel Abney
CULTURE TYPE: You said they were sympathetic, but just didn’t get it when they were doing critiques of your work throughout the program. When you revealed the thesis painting, the responses you mentioned, were they casual reactions or during a formal critique?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: The initial reaction, it wasn’t a critique. We were installing the show and I flipped the painting over and everyone saw it. No one had seen it until then. That’s when I really got the first reaction. We had a critique much later after the show, and that’s when I had some people ask me if I was angry about being the only black student.
CULTURE TYPE: Beyond the concept of you being white and them being black, why are they depicted as prisoners and you are a prison guard armed with an assault rifle?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: This is the beginning of me bringing different things into the work that I was interested in at the time. Adrian Piper was the fact that I worked in admissions. I saw that there weren’t a lot of black students accepted into Parsons, or not really applying. Then at the same time, I was also interested in the disproportionate amount of black males in prison. I wanted to combine all of those things and I felt that a portrait of my classmates black and in prison was a good way to combine all that I was interested in at the time.
CULTURE TYPE: Talk about the way you actually depicted them, because you said people could recognize themselves. Do the portraits look like the white people just with darker skin? How did you decide who would have an afro, who would have cornrows? Do they at all reflect how they appear or what their personalities are?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Some of the other elements I added and could be random. But just knowing them as my classmates I thought about their personality and what they might enjoy. Like the woman I put in the afro, Ronnie, I think she would love it. You know? I knew she would love having an afro.
CULTURE TYPE: She is the one with those long earrings on the bottom left?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Yes. I don’t know, it was just knowing them as classmates. That’s how I picked some of the things and some of them were truly random.
CULTURE TYPE: Tell me about the visuals of it. It’s a political painting, yet it’s got vibrant colors and has an interesting composition with this divider between you and one of the students and the rest of the class.
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Honestly, the divider was a good mistake. It was supposed to be one painting, but it was so large I had to wrap it around the corner of my studio and in that process it messed up the middle, where I couldn’t get the canvas to go back to the shape. So I decided to make it a diptych. It ended up working successfully, but in the beginning it was a mistake, something I had to fix.
“It was supposed to be one painting, but it was so large I had to wrap it around the corner of my studio and in that process it messed up the middle, where I couldn’t get the canvas to go back to the shape. So I decided to make it a diptych.” — Nina Chanel Abney
“30 Americans” Artists in 2008 with GLENN LIGON’s “America,” 2008 (neon sign and paint, ed. of 1 plus AP), Courtesy Rubell Family Collection. From left, Rashid Johnson, Nick Cave, Kalup Linzy, Jeff Sonhouse, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Barkley L. Hendricks, Hank Willis Thomas (front row), Xaviera Simmons, Purvis Young, John Bankston, Nina Chanel Abney (in black and yellow check shirt), Henry Taylor, Mickalene Thomas (front row), Kerry James Marshall, and Shinique Smith. | Photo by Kwaku Alston, Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
CULTURE TYPE: You must have been devastated at the time, until you figured it out.
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Oh, yeah. I remember I had asked Mickalene Thomas. I happened to go to her studio around that time and I was like, “I need some help. I have this painting and I can’t get the canvas back.” Typically, you can put hot water on the back, but this was such a big area that it didn’t work. But once I made a diptych, I was happy about it. But at the time, I was nervous.
CULTURE TYPE: When you did the thesis show, how many other paintings did you do in addition to this one?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: We are only allotted so much space in the gallery and that painting, I already felt like I was taking up a lot of space. It’s like 10 by 20 feet. So I didn’t put anything else in the show.
CULTURE TYPE: Once you created this painting, before you had a reaction from other people, how did you feel about it?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Before the thesis show, I was pleased with the painting. But obviously, I was a little nervous about what the response would be. I painted them and they didn’t know what it was going to turn out like. Afterward, after I started getting attention for it, I can’t complain about that.
CULTURE TYPE: You said you were painting smaller before you started painting “Class of 2007.” What kind of paintings were you doing before? Was the style similar or different?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: The style was definitely the same, just smaller. That December, before I started working on that painting, I did eight or 10 portraits for friends and family. The way those figures are painted is exactly how the smaller portraits looked. Then from there my adviser, he felt like the figures should be larger. That’s what prompted me to work bigger and combine all of these figures in one space.
CULTURE TYPE: How long did it take you to paint “Class of 2007”?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: I barely remember, but I believe I started in January or February, so maybe it took me about three months.
CULTURE TYPE: Back to that moment in 2007. You said you really wanted to get gallery attention when you did your thesis painting.
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: Yes. Because that’s how I got gallery representation. It was do or die for me at that thesis show because I absolutely did not want to have to go and apply for jobs. I knew I did not want to come all the way to New York and then have to do something I don’t want to do. Fortunately my gallery that I am still with now, they found me at my thesis show, and then started to work with me soon after.
CULTURE TYPE: “30 Americans” first opened at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami in 2008. That must have been some experience, fresh out of school, to be represented among all those great contemporary artists.
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: It was pretty amazing. I was looking up all these artists in grad school. There’s actually a DVD they have, we filmed these documentaries, they put us in groups. Once I got out of school, before I got with my gallery, there was a short period where I was going to be Mickalene’s studio assistant. She had interviewed me and then I forgot. She had to go out of the country or something, but by the time she came back, I had joined a gallery. I remember during that interview she was like, “Why do you want to work for me,” and she ended up writing out for me a long list of residencies I should apply for. It just kind of came full circle, very fast, and now we were in a show together. It was really exciting. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
IMAGE: Top, NINA CHANEL ABNEY, “Class of 2007,” 2007 (acrylic on canvas). | Courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami; Above right, Nina Chanel Abney attends the 2016 Whitney Studio Party at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on May 17, 2016. Photo by Andrew Toth, Courtesy Getty Images
Over the past eight years, “30 Americans” has been presented at 11 institutions from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, Nashville, Detroit and Washington State. The “30 Americans” catalog, now in its third edition, is full of vivid, full-page images of the works by the more than 30 artists featured in the exhibition, with contributions by Franklin Sirmans, Glenn Ligon, Robert Hobbs, and Michelle Wallace. And coming soon, a comprehensive hardcover exhibition catalog, fully illustrated with critical essays, is scheduled to be published in March 2017 to coincide with “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Watch Nina Chanel Abney talk about where her work is today, nearly 10 years after “Class of 2007.” | Video by The Bholdr