The Live Unchained team and I were discussing how artists, in general, but conceptual artists in particular, are often stereotyped as tortured functional depressives. You don’t really hear about how these artists have to be resourceful and trust their instincts. From an early age Nina Chanel Abney created pieces that resonated with her, even if they didn’t fulfill others’ expectations–i.e. young Nina’s painting of a bloody eyeball that caught her art teacher off guard.
Paper Magazine described her work as combining “strong feminine and masculine images infused with humor, irony, perversity, satire and fantasy.” As to the playful, challenging nature of her paintings, she says they’re “easy to swallow, hard to digest.” Having exhibited works throughout the United States and abroad, being featured in The New York Times, Essence and Glamour, people like us, are eager to see the stories her paintings have to tell because they make us better–even if we have to choke a little. Here, Nina discusses how she came to be so bold in her work, her creative process and visual storytelling.
Could you share with us a little about your background? What made you want to become a painter?
My love for art and my hate for the “9 to 5” drove me to seriously pursue painting as a career. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child. But it wasn’t until graduate school that everything started to come full circle for me. My boundless imagination and I moved to a place where “anything goes.” Prior to coming to New York, I had a very limited view of who an artist was; I had a very limited view of art in general. I had never been into a gallery. I had no idea how artists made a living. I had no notion of contemporary art.
Most of the schools I attended insinuated that a “good” artist was one that could draw and paint realistically. And though that was what was typically taught, because my gut told me differently, I began a mission to find my own truth. And that started by me purposely doing the opposite of what my art teacher expected. As a fifth grader, I remember having to paint Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror” as an assignment, and I turned in a painting of a bloody eyeball. And from then on I continued to push the limits of my assignments and my teacher’s buttons by doing my own thing.
And I never meant to be rebellious in a disrespectful manner. I just needed to paint by emotion and instinct rather than paint out of docility.
"Close But No Cigar," Acrylic on canvas
To me your work appears to possess a playful yet mysterious quality that I am drawn to? How would you characterize your artwork?
Easy to swallow, hard to digest. The playfulness of my work is a result of my use of vivid colors and my interest in satirical cartoons. I love the fact that anything taboo suddenly becomes tolerable as long as it’s not “real”. I’m a huge fan of The Family Guy because of their ability to spoon feed their audience touchy topics with the use of humor and animation. If it were a sitcom with actual actors, they would no longer be on television. And as far as the mystery…I personally find the artwork that I am mostly drawn to is work that keeps you guessing and keeps you coming back for more. I enjoy work that doesn’t give me a definite answer, but challenges me answer my own questions. I cannot even sketch an idea for a painting because the definitive nature of the act itself would make me lose interest in the painting before it’s begun, so I couldn’t possibly expect the viewer to want to continuously look a painting that is too literal.
"Null and Void," Acrylic on canvas, 77 ½ x 45
During the opening of my second solo exhibition, “Emma’s Basement”, there was a woman who came into the gallery, stood in front of my painting, “Null and Void,” and left with a look of utter disgust. She then came back about 10 minutes later, and I knew then my work was doing exactly what I wanted it to.
When looking at your work there appears to be layers to the narrative, which I find really interesting. Is there usually a specific story that you wish to be conveyed in a piece?
When I begin a painting, I never have a specific story in mind. I usually have a few general topics that I want to start a discussion about, or attempt to resolve for myself. And in that process I usually end up with a lot of contradictions. It is not until then that I meld together all of these disjointed elements to create a narrative or multiple narratives. And to adhere to the mysterious quality of my work, in my most sinister voice, I say, “I NEVER share the stories!” ☺
From what sources do you get your inspiration?
Most of my inspiration comes from personal thoughts and experiences and the things that arose from those experiences, or resulted from those thoughts. I then relate them to specific songs, emotions, movies, celebrities, world issues, etc. So I am constantly watching television, movies, browsing the internet, looking through books, magazines, and listening to music in order to immerse myself in the things that relate to the topic at hand which is usually what I am dealing with at the moment in some shape or form.
But when I find myself in some sort of slump, in which for whatever reason I am not feeling very moved by anything in particular, I usually go to any art museum, or go check out some gallery shows to rejuvenate myself.
Could you discuss your collection GO BERSERKER? What made you create this collection? I was specifically drawn to your pieces: “A Capitol Offence” and “The Liquidators,” could you speak about those?
THE LIQUIDATORS (2010) acrylic on canvas 66 x 80 in.
A CAPITAL OFFENCE (2010) acrylic on canvas 36 x 36 in.
I don’t attempt to communicate anything specific to the viewer. I simply share my thoughts and hope that the viewer will have an experience, rather pleasant or unpleasant, that will start a conversation, spark an emotion, or help to them to convey their own message to themselves. And I don’t have a specific audience in mind for my work. Creating work for a specific type of person would create too many boundaries. I create the work for myself, and then share it with anyone who is interested.
The pieces in my exhibition Go Berserker, explore introspection and the idea of fighting against and/or accepting the things one might find when looking inside oneself. With that body of work I was also interested in exploring the collision of instinct and intuition, as well as the power in the ability to harness both.
Are there any specific pieces of art you would like to share with us?
Nina Chanel Abney The Escorts, 2008 Acrylic on canvas 93 x 66 1/2”
Nina Chanel Abney Law and Order, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 65 ½ x 74 1/4"
Nina Chanel Abney Holey Grail, 2011 Acrylic on canvas 48 x 40"
Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?
Living unchained for me is living for myself without regrets and obligation.
I have a shameless plug…
I’m currently collaborating with a well-known brand to develop my own line of limited edition t-shirts that should be out sometime this summer.
I will be in the traveling exhibition 30 Americans, which is coming to North Carolina in March.
(I haven’t tweeted anything since July, but I’m working on it, ☺)