The New York-based artist Nina Chanel Abney punches eyes out one at a time. Her life-size paper dolls don’t seem to mind. They crowd around the ankles of her standing desk, in blank anticipation, patiently waiting for her to finish their faces so they can go on to their destiny as protagonists in her primary-colored collages. Abney points down at the huddle encircling her feet. “It’s a dance scene,” she says.
Assembling her dancers requires meticulous choreography. “One millimeter can shift an expression,” Abney says. Despite the precarity, Abney feels at home in this cut-and-paste world. Over the past decade, her figurative collages depicting the lives and stories of Americans like herself—Black, queer, working class individuals—have become a fixture of the art world. Her exuberantly colored paintings, executed with stencils and spray paint, mimic Abney’s collage aesthetic and make me think of artists like Henri Matisse, Kara Walker, and Lari Pittman—but Abney bats away these art-historical touchstones.
She says her mother, who is also an artist, is the one responsible for her love of drawing and collaging. “I’ve been cutting and pasting since childhood,” Abney says. “I like the familiarity of it.”
Raised in Chicago by her mother, Abney used drawing as a way to connect. In school, she and her sister invited their mostly white classmates to commission portraits of Black celebrities from them. Abney earned a BFA from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois before heading to Parsons, where she graduated with a masters degree in 2007.
In 2008, she participated in the groundbreaking group show 30 Americans at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, and as the exhibition traveled around the country her exuberant images depicting Black joy and pain began appearing in museums alongside fellow participants like Rashid Johnson, Renée Green, and Kerry James Marshall.
In 2017, she had an exhibition with Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and after that she was featured in monographic museum shows. Abney vibrates on a cultural frequency all her own and has also collaborated to create Air Jordan sneakers, as well as a version of the classic game card Uno. Her most visible pop cultural moment, an album cover created last year for Meek Mill’s Expensive Pain, was a tearful cartoon portrait of the rapper surrounded by nude women, a yacht, a motorcycle, and dollar signs.
The ICA Miami exhibition of Nina Chanel Abney: Big Butch Energy, on view during Art Basel, focuses on Abney’s college years, when the artist was less assured in her queer identity and struggled to find a community that reflected the kind of person she wanted to be. An epic shower scene, notably, dwells on the awkwardness and discomfort of forced group dynamics. Abney was attracted to the universality of coming-of-age scenes; she is devoted to mediums freighted with childhood resonance and stories she knows can be found on the tip of the tongue.
The conceptual second half of the Miami presentation opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland on January 27. Those works focus instead on the more positive side of Abney’s collegiate experience, and the energy is festive. “Like coming into myself and the celebration,” Abney says. The keystone work here depicts a raucous dance party like the ones Abney would have liked to attend.
After the MoCA Cleveland show and a well-deserved break, Abney will be doubling down on her efforts to focus on public art and shift her language into three-dimensional sculptures. She’s not sure what they will look like yet, but she does know she wants those artworks to depict the lives of those unsung in the Western canon and be accessible to the public at all hours.
“I always want the viewer to be able to feel like they have a connection with the work and recall some of their own similar experiences,” she says. “I’m good at finding communities that wants their stories told. I don’t feel like there is enough representation of Black masculine-presenting or queer women in media, so if I can bring my experience to life and it inspires others then I feel like I’m doing a good job. In earlier work, I was trying to make the content more ambiguous—now, it’s leaning toward the opposite.”