Nina Chanel Abney
The Great Escape
Known as a pioneering figure in revitalizing narrative figurative painting, Nina Chanel Abney's second solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, titled "The Great Escape," imagines an autonomous, utopian space—namely, one not dominated by white supremacy. Across the canvases, figures appear in the midst of idyll, rendered in a graphic, collage-and-cartoon-influenced flattened visual plane. Shapes, figures, and motifs—a figure with sagging pants, the grain of wood, the shape of a breast—parade through colorful and spray-painted stenciled shapes. The work that opens the show depicts Black figures gathered around a campfire, mid-story, hands raised in animated gestures. Another depicts a figure in the act of gardening, surrounded by pink blossoms and a round, yellow sun; and yet another is depicted barbecuing, surrounded by autumn leaves.
But it won’t escape anybody that however innocuous these scenes are, their settings have been the backdrop for too many a racist episode: police have been called by white people on Black people at barbecues, in public pools, and in their own backyards. Abney is no stranger to the explicitly political dimension in her work, having launched her career during her Parsons School of Design MFA graduation show, for which she painted her (exclusively white) classmates as Black prison inmates, with herself race-swapped as the white prison guard. This show, though no less political in tenor, is quieter; a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” sign dominates the corner of Being Mixie with my Fixie (2020) as two Black figures bike serenely past.
Nina Chanel Abney, Buoyancé/Seas the Day, 2020. © Nina Chanel Abney. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York,