Big Butch Energy//Synergy: A Conversation with Nina Chanel Abney

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SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah // September 21, 2023 – January 29, 2024

There are few artists on the contemporary landscape that have the immediacy of Nina Chanel Abney. A painter by training and now explorining collage and printmaking as mediums, Abney has traversed the landscape of social conscious picture-making with both a keen critique of America and, at times, confrontational nature of challenging ideas of identity and selfhood. Don’t let the colors fool you. Don’t even let the bright objects obscure the message. Abney is telling a story, an American story, and in both abstraction and figuration, through various mediums and practices, delving deep into our collective psyche. 

There is also, at times, a playful tone amongst the underlying challenges to power. This past week at SCAD’s Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, Abney brought together two bodies of work, Big Butch Energy/Synergy, series’ that brought attention to Black and queer identity and the experiences of masculine-of-center woman through the lens of the stereotypical 1980’s American college movie. Using Porky’s and Animal House as influences and inspiration, the bold, graphic imagery may seem familiar, may seem like a dip into pop-culture nostalgia, but also in a refreshing, nuanced and completely new way. That the work was presented on a college campus is not lost on the work, only enhancing what perhaps even the students have come to understand about the misconceptions and pre-determined iconography many of us are sold of the American college campus. 

Just before she addressed the university’s students, we sat down with the past Juxtapoz cover artist to get an idea of the exhibition, her evolution, her experience on a college campus, and what’s next. 

Evan Pricco: There is just an immediacy to your work, as in, as soon as you walk into the gallery and are surrounding by your paintings, there is just instant impact. Politically, aesthetically, technically and even with, at times, a sense of humor. As we are at SCAD right now, surrounded by students, I wonder if you can think back to your origins, and maybe when did you start finding that voice?

Nina Chanel Abney: When I am thinking about how I was working in 2007, 2008, it was much different. But I think it was just a slow progression to how I’m working now. And for me, trying to let go of even my own ideas around what a good painting was, or how my art education was in a liberal arts college in the Quad Cities, where Iowa and Illinois meet. 

I feel like my art education was traditional. I remember we would do figure drawing class, and mine were always different. And so I just stuck with that. But even then in grad school, I was still kind of abandoning my own assumptions around what a good figurative painting looked like, and getting rid of those ideas that I have to render something realistic for it to be good. And so I just wanted to start to hone in on what I was truly interested in, and combining my love for animation, spray-painting and bringing that in. Abstraction. How could I all put it together, but even in a fun way, how do I paint a hand or a nose in the simplest way that it’s legible? But also a rejection of the idea of making a realistic-looking painting. And I think when I started playing with collage, it opened my eyes open to this idea of flat layering that I felt very appealing. And I was like, “I think this is where I want to be at right now.” 

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Does being back at an art school cause you to feel like, “Okay, this actually gives me anxiety because I remember those times…”? Or do you feel, “Oh, this is nice to come back to a campus and see all these young people thirsty for knowledge and trying to find their way”? To me sometimes I get a little anxiety. I’m like, I remember not always enjoying it, but also kind of enjoying it at the same time.

No, I agree. I mean, now coming to a campus, I’m like, “Oh, this is so beautiful and nice.” And when I was in it, I’m just hungover from the party before and not wanting to go to class. And so now I think, “Man, they should have it where you go to college later in life, where you can appreciate it, appreciate it more.”

The actual work itself in Big Butch Energy/Synergy is a parody, in a sense, of the stereotypical, male-centric, 1980’s American college-age film. And it’s obviously through the filter of what it is that you do. Can you talk a little bit about this particular body of work that is here at SCAD?

I basically took those films as a springboard, thinking about coming of age movies. Animal House, American Pie, Porky’s, all these movies that I feel like, in visual media, informed my perception of what is masculine, what is feminine. Rewatching those films…

They are so problematic.

They do not age well. But then I’m not necessarily critiquing them, but just using them and reflecting on my college experience. And even re-imagining it maybe back to the present. I was an undergrad in 2000, so the way things have evolved since then, just about queer visibility, it’s like I couldn’t have imagined what would be happening now. I’m sure the students have a much different experience than in 2023, here at SCAD, than I did in 2000. 

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I can’t even remember, but does Animal House or American Pie even touch on a queer experience at all?

Vaguely. It might be in Porky’s. It’s an intense scene where I feel like the father comments on the son potentially being gay or something like that. One of the scenes I focused on was the peephole scene into the shower in that film. The painting I made is the center-panel of the big piece in the exhibition. I was just re-imagining the camaraderie and sisterhood amongst masculine-of-center women, which doesn’t have so much visibility in popular culture.

You said you’re not critiquing, but just by the very nature of creating this body of work, it does critique a bit of that “traditional,” pop-cultural depictions of what the college experience was sold to many of us in America. 

Or even how men and women interact, the expectations of women or what makes a woman attractive, if we even take queerness out of it. I feel like all that’s in the show.

Dare I say, though, that obviously there is some social and cultural depth to the ways the media creates stereotypes and manipualtes collective thinking, the show does have a sense of humor. And feels perfect for a college campus.

It’s like a full circle moment to have the work actually on a college campus and makes me more curious like, “What are the students experiences now as compared to when I was in school?”

I know these began as two bodies of work, but now that they are together, does it feel like one body of work?

It’s all in the same conversation. So Big Butch Energy was the first part, and that’s more talking specific to more even sorority/fraternity culture. And then Big Butch Synergy‘s more like women partying together, doing activities together, working out and all these things. And so I think they should be in conversation.

Your show at Pace Prints last year, that was a really special one. I think it really combined your skills with collage with a really good sense of space. Like your works always appear dense, but you aren’t over doing anything. It’s like a density with room to breath, if that makes sense?

I think a lot of my work shifted was when I was introduced to the work of Stuart Davis. And so I think that’s what took me on a whole new path. And then I just feel like I’ve been trying to evolve that, evolve my stencils even, or even printmaking. If you could see the very first prints I did when I got in Pace, they’re so different. And with every body of work, I am trying to challenge myself like, “How can I try something different? How can we do, I don’t know, get better than the last show?”

My next thing is I’m not using spray paint anymore. I’m going to go back to using acrylic. I said to myself, “How will my whole journey, thus far, now inform how I work with acrylic again?”

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What was the last painting you made? 

I have been printmakiing so much, and I have put collage works in fairs and shows. I haven’t touched a paintbrush in probably four to five years. 

Who’s exciting you right now? 

I really like Tschabalala Self. I’m drawn to artists where their practice is multifaceted, like they are doing sculpture, neon, animation, and so on.

What is something that you are working on outside of the realm of the studio? Like how does Nina Chanel Abney shift focus on a normal day? 

Okay. I’ve been trying to teach myself how to DJ. And, I play the piano, but I’m getting ready to try to teach myself how to play Jazz piano. 

And then with technology, I feel like I’m at the point in my life where my parents might’ve said, “Am I going to keep learning how to use this phone or programs, or am I going to get left behind?” So I’m refreshing myself on Photoshop and Illustrator. I just got an iPad so I can draw into it. I’m almost at the point where one of my studio assistants is like, “You’re at Photoshop 4.0? We’re at Photoshop 20 now!” And I’m like, “Oh, no!”

When does Nina Chanel say yes to a project?

You need to say, “When does she say no?” (laughs)

Nina Chanel Abney’s Big Butch Energy/Synergy is on view at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah through January 29. 2024. 

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