Nina Chanel Abney Upends College Greek Life Stereotypes at ICA Miami

Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney ©Nina Chanel Abney, courtesy of the artist
For her solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, artist Nina Chanel Abney mines source material that Hollywood has loved to portray for the better part of half a century in films like 1978's Animal House and 2003's Old School: collegiate Greek life. It makes sense for an artist who often explores themes of American pop culture and contemporary society, queer expression, and race to comment on systemic issues that face Black communities.

The works in "Big Butch Energy" explore the realities of intersectional identities — Black, queer, cisgender, trans — within the very American and heteronormative realm of fraternities and sororities. The scenes that comprise Abney's collages are stretched across panels of two, three, and five sections, narrating in meticulous detail the inherent complexities in these hedonistic environments. The exhibition, debuting in Miami, is part of the ICA's programming for Miami Art Week and is on view through March 12, 2023.

Now 40, Abney came to the forefront of a generation of emerging classically trained artists in the early 2000s when she graduated from New York University's Parsons School of Design in 2007. Originally from Chicago, she arrived on the East Coast carrying childhood inspirations of cartoons and comics that leaked into her canvases as her style developed. Her master's thesis work, titled Class of 2007, commented on being the only Black student in her program. Flipping the racial identities of her white peers to those of Black figures clothed in orange inmate uniforms and her Black self to that of a white, gun-toting corrections officer, the work confronted the viewer with the racial realities of collegiate life with an urgency that persists  a decade and a half later in "Big Butch Energy."

Her thesis work caught the eye of Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell, who added it to their extensive permanent collection and featured Abney as the youngest artist in the Rubell Museum's 2008 exhibition "30 Americans." During the ensuing decade, Abney honed her well-conceived figurative storytelling through collage and painting and a distinct knack for hand-cut playful visual sequences. In February 2017, her first solo museum exhibition, "Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush," debuted at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina and traveled to other institutions including the Chicago Cultural Center and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The new work for "Big Butch Energy" references the traditions of baroque portraiture and fraternity composites and scenes from movies like Animal House. Abney's use of Greek student life as a springboard to a discussion of race, gender, and sexuality is especially significant in light of recent reports that undergraduate degree admissions are down and Greek life recruitment has decreased since the onset of the pandemic. Abney cuts those same seams of taboo through the simplified symbology in each rendering — everything from the pastel Vineyard Vines-like collegiate clothing the figures wear to the varied tartan patterns that ground the work in the cultural incubator and aesthetic zeitgeist of college life in America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

"This is the artist's first large-scale installation dedicated to the notion of gender, and it was inspired both by Nina's experience and her observation that female figures in her work were misgendered by audiences," Alex Gartenfeld, ICA's artistic director, tells New Times. "The resulting compositions make a broad range of art-historical references, from baroque still life to posters popular in college dorm rooms to the works of Barkley Hendrix.

"Nina is an artist who is constantly challenging herself to take on new topics and techniques," adds Gartenfeld. "With this exhibition, we sought to provide the artist an opportunity to experiment with a large-scale installation. The results are an astounding and personal new chapter in Nina's exploration of how we gender forms. She has also continued to experiment with the medium of collage, creating ever-more-complex compositions."
click to enlarge
Nina Chanel Abney, Mama Gotta Have A Life Too, 2022. Diptych collage on panel.
© Nina Chanel Abney. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Prints.
Gartenfeld's assertion that this marks a new chapter for Abney notwithstanding, the inspiration for "Big Butch Energy" is rooted in the artist's reinterpretation of the gender norms she saw in media.

"About a year ago, I decided to rewatch movies such as Animal House and Porky's — a certain genre of movie that in my younger years had an impact in informing my perceptions of masculinity and femininity. 'Big Butch Energy' is not about the realities of Greek life, specifically," Abney explains. "I used depictions of Greek life and college in films as the catalyst to explore representations of masculinity and how these references are in opposition with my own identity as a masculine-presenting woman. This is among the first exhibitions to foreground the representation of masculine-of-center Black women."

Inviting viewers to "I spy" cut-and-paste panels of found materials riddled with clues and allusions to films portraying college life at its most raucous and raunchy, Abney recontextualizes a fact of American media that leaks into global perceptions and stereotypes relating to gender performance and toxic expressions of masculinity and femininity. (Not to mention the lack of Black and brown bodies actively participating within these environments.) Yet there's humor in the works on view, and for the artist, there's a playful game that taunts at the fleeting hilarity of these social environments of belonging. With pieces titled Homiesexuals and The Light Skinned Comeback, Abney subverts the absurdity of the media's portrayal of Greek life while empowering the potential of having Black and brown people inhabit the lead roles. From an all-Black cast of cheerleaders proclaiming "Go Femmes" to the messiness of pizza stains on a white shirt surrounded by a tie-dye background, the works simultaneously invoke college life and the experience of being Black and queer in America.

Abney's ability to construct a collage of paper in a range of colors, shapes, and sizes, employing mediums like spray paint, is innovative in and of itself. What appears to be a traditional painting entirely rendered on a single layer is a jigsaw puzzle wherein the artist asserts agency in molding and gluing together sharp geometric shapes to form a smooth, cohesive composition. "Big Butch Energy" calls out to the viewer with its animated color schemes and combos, resonating with each individual's lived experience and encounter with the social realities and media representation of collegiate life.

Says Abney: "I hope the audience will have an enjoyment and a greater appreciation for the printmaking and collaging process, and perhaps will reflect on ways in which they have or have not been complicit in perpetuating harmful ideas around identity and gender."

"Nina Chanel Abney: Big Butch Energy." Monday, November 28, through March 12, 2023, at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; Admission is free.
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