Few spectators took a neutral position on former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s presidential portraits. Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley — prominent artists in museums, galleries, and art schools, yet hardly household names — chose decisively interpretive stances on their subjects. Like the Obamas themselves, the achievements (or failures) of the paintings lie in the eye of the beholder. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a “real sense” of the the first black presidential family; the artists felt it better to articulate the thorniness of the discourse surrounding them, and let the chips fall where they may.
One gets a sense, looking at the paintings of Nina Chanel Abney, that this trend in painting isn’t an aberration, so much as an official acknowledgement of our shift in taste. Abney, a Harvey, Illinois native, whose first solo exhibition is currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, rides many fine lines. A handful of paintings on display — “Untitled, 2013” and “Untitled (Yo, 123), 2015” — are rendered in grayscale, revealing a formal proficiency contingent less on hue than on texture, while most of her work is recognizable from its confluence of colors. Profoundly interested in narrative, the works refuse to show a clear arc. Rather, the viewer moves along a series of simple shapes and vaguely-familiar images, forming a composite in their mind. Unabashed in her depiction of social issues such as police brutality, global warfare, and interracial adoption, she refuses to pick a side, forcing viewers to accept the middle ground between sides.
Part of this is achieved through a simple juxtaposition of images. “Beauty in the Beast,” for example, shows a white man and woman in blackface — one holds a black baby, the other holds a piglet. The checkerboard floor they stand on, a t-shirt that says “360,” and a tattoo that reads “Rebel” together manage to bundle together the white savior complex, society’s ever-shifting viewpoints on integration, and the fetishization of marginalized peoples.
Meanwhile, “Make it Reign” shows a pair of German Shepherds barking at a stripper who resembles Iggy Pop in his prime more than the women on staff at Starlets or Magic City. Here, Abney makes inseparable the history of institutional racism and the subjugation of women, simply through changing the color of her subject’s skin.
“Pool Party at Rockingham #2” shows two gay, interracial couples playing chicken by a pool. Does a scene of two white men riding piggyback on two black men call to mind the promise of our post-racial society, or is this a mandingo fight from our antebellum past? The black man with a lighter skin tone is brandishing an erect white phallus; the flock of doves flapping at the top of the painting (as well as the words “he” and “she” framing its upper-left and center-right) allude to some semblance of unity. Or does the hierarchical positioning of the words articulate the emasculation of black men by a white world afraid of black male sexuality? The floating dollar signs and the “XXX” do much to muddle it.
Given her emphasis on racial politics, it’s worth looking at Abney in the context of Kerry James Marshall, an accomplished painter whose commitment to showing black lives has unfortunately allowed him to be used as shorthand for representational justice. Abney also seems concerned with the parameters of blackness; both “Untitled (IXI Black)” and “Untitled (XXXXXX)” show black police officers in a position of power when pitted against white protesters. But where Marshall’s radicalism arises from making blackness more visible in the absence of whiteness, Abney’s smashes blackness and whiteness together — slices each into pieces and jumbles them into an angular collage. Oftentimes, it comes off as a mess, but that’s because we are.
Taken this light, Abney’s formal tendencies more closely resemble the crumbled, pipe-cleaner cubism of Stuart Davis. Her clashing primary colors and layered shapes thrillingly repurpose abstraction for our chaotic century. Once upon a time, deviating from representation gestured toward an avant-garde, intellectual purity. In Abney’s universe, doing so articulates topics discussed with such abundance that the resulting narratives conjure sighs of exasperation rather than ah-ha moments. Indeed, their tangle represents our culture’s lack of them.
“Royal Flush” is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, Exhibit Hall, 4th Floor North, until May 6, 2018.