To face a Nina Chanel Abney painting is to be confronted by a hanging calamity, her flash-bang dazzling works reflecting—riotously, righteously, flatly, regally, irrefutably—our great social maladies and mores with an aesthetic absurdity to match the bizarre cruelty with which such madness exists. To gaze at an Abney is to stare down Medusa, the striated muscles of the body seized, the brain chemicals briefly gelatinizing, the pulse felt in the ears, a flush hanging from the cheekbones. Abney’s paintings contain all of the dramatic grandeur and import—accrued, like a patina, over centuries of art-historical hagiography and hegemony—of the figurative works which are fêted dutifully in Paris and London but depict, rather than those kings and saints, the trappings of our present.
Whereas those paintings buzzed with the whispered details of a dictum, Abney’s works dance, cry, shout, laugh, scream with signals and contradictions; the celebrity and everyday, the tabloid and the mainstream, the figurative and the abstract, the secular and the sacred. Condoleezza Rice, clad in a white bikini, stands amid attack dogs and authoritarian figures as Abney’s friend is torn asunder; the celebrity deaths of 2009 are mourned in the traditional lamentation format; chicken-fighting men literally grapple with gender representation. “The Boardroom,” a standout work, features the most horrifying Turkish bath scene since knives drenched linoleum red in the movie “Eastern Promises;” the gathered representations of corporate avarice crush the windpipe of a helpless victim, a literal bucket of blood on the floor, the CEO-types gloved up like serial killers with the yellow rubber requisite for dirty work.
Not all of the works in this, Abney’s first solo museum exhibition, are as terrifying as “The Boardroom,” but all have its ability to lock the observer and send the heart and brain into histrionics, a power no shield could deflect. (B. David Zarley)
Nina Chanel Abney’s “Royal Flush” runs through May 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington.