Nina Chanel Abney’s “Seized the Imagination” opens at Jack Shainman today (on view through December 20) along with her show “Safe House” at Mary Boone Gallery (on view through December 22). The artist is known for her colorful canvases, which are at times frenzied or chaotic, packed with pop culture imagery and references to current events. Looking at her work is comparable to the feeling of information overload we get when browsing the Internet or staring at our phones. Abney’s new body of work recognizes our powerlessness over the manipulations of technology and media, and the feelings that arise as a result.
WHITEWALLER: Was there a starting point for your show “Seized the Imagination” at Jack Shainman?
NINA CHANEL ABNEY: How to feel the way you felt before you knew what you know now, a fictional self-help book title painted by Johan Deckmann, from his “Art Therapy” series. I had been feeling uninspired, not my usual self, and I realized that after immersing myself in the news, social media, pop culture, et cetera nonstop to produce work, it was finally taking a toll. And the very thing that drives my work was simultaneously seizing my imagination (hence the title of the show). So “Seized the Imagination” at Jack Shainman will be an exploration of the recognition of our seemingly unescapable and unrepairable circumstances, i.e., technology/media as means of manipulation and control, global warming, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, gentrification, et cetera. The show will explore the relationship between anger and fear, conventionality and acquiescence.
I am also doing a collaborative project at Mary Boone Gallery to coincide with “Seized the Imagination.” In a nutshell, Jack Shainman’s show will tackle “what we know now” and its effects and implications. And the work that will be in Mary Boone’s show, titled “Safe house,” will explore “how to feel the way you felt before you knew what you know now” and ponder the questions “How to reclaim anger? How to restore creativity? How to find joy in the mundane?”
WW: The shows come after your first major museum show at the Nasher Museum of Art, which just closed in July. What was it like looking back at 10 years of your work?
NCA: It was great to look back at my older work. A lot of times when I look at much older work, oddly it doesn’t feel like I created it. But it’s an amazing opportunity for me to reminisce and possibly take another look at the things I was interested in 10 years ago and look at their current relevance. Also, to see if there is anything I would like to revisit in my new work and further investigate.
WW: You’ve said, “I’m very intentional about creating work that gets a mixed response, and every interpretation is welcome. I want to start conversations and arguments, for viewers to participate in the work and have their own personal relationship with it.” Has that always been important for you in your practice?
NCA: Yes, what’s the point of creating work if the viewer’s only participation is simply just viewing it? I aim to create work that is accessible to everyone. From frequent gallery patrons to someone who has never been inside of an art museum.
WW: What kinds of conversations are you hoping to open up in your more recent work?
NCA: I have previously talked a lot about this idea of information overload. And if we think about that in addition to all of the things going on currently, it can be very overwhelming. And that can result in many things . . . anger, fear, sadness, intentional ignorance, people operating in autopilot. I just hope this body of work will allow people to take a moment to check in with themselves to see where they stand, and ask themselves, have they truly processed the current state of the world, and their place in it.
WW: You’ve expressed interest in translating your work to other media, like sneakers or bags. Why does that interest you?
NCA: I like to explore new things and challenge myself, and not confine my creativity to a canvas. I also am interested in translating my work to other media as a way to create more access and broaden my audience.
WW: Where else would you like to see your work? Who else do you want to see your work?
NCA: I am interested in more public art, possibly huge outdoor paintings or large sculpture.
This article appears in Whitewaller New York 2017 The Salon Art + Design, out this week.