Nina Chanel Abney turns the stereotypes of college Greek life on its head at ICA Miami

For her solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, artist Nina Chanel Abney is mining source material that Hollywood has loved to portray for nearly half a century in films like 1978. Animal house and that of 2003 Old-fashioned: 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 facing 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 make up Abney’s collages are stretched across panels of two, three, and five sections, telling in minute detail the inherent complexity of these hedonic environments. The exhibition, which will premiere 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 with childhood inspirations from cartoons and strips that leaked into her canvases as her style evolved. Her master’s thesis, titled Class of 2007, noted that she was the only black student in her program. Flipping the racial identity of her white colleagues to that of black figures clad in orange prisoner uniforms and her black self to that of a white armed 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 graduate work caught the attention 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 “30 Americans” exhibit. During the next decade, Abney honed her well-thought-out figurative storytelling through collage and painting and a clear talent 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 has 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 films such as Animal house. Abney’s use of Greek student life as a springboard to a discussion about race, gender and sexuality is especially important in light of recent reports that admissions to undergraduate degrees have declined and Greek life recruitment has declined since the start of the pandemic . Abney cuts those same seams of taboo through the simplified symbolism in each rendering – everything from the pastel Vineyard Vines-esque collegiate attire the figures wear to the varied tartan patterns that shaped the work in the cultural incubator and aesthetic zeitgeist of college life in America in late 20th and early 21st century.

“This is the artist’s first large-scale installation dedicated to the concept of gender, and it was inspired both by Nina’s experience and her observation that female figures in her work were misinterpreted by the public,” said Alex Gartenfeld, Artistic Director of ICA. New times. The resulting compositions make a wide variety of art historical references, from baroque still lifes to posters popular in college dorms to the work of Barkley Hendrix.

“Nina is an artist who constantly challenges herself to tackle new subjects and techniques,” adds Gartenfeld. “With this exhibition, we tried to give the artist the opportunity to experiment with a large-scale installation. The results are an amazing 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 increasingly complex compositions emerge.”

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Nina Chanel Abney, Mama must have a life too2022. Diptych collage on panel.

© Nina Chanel Abney. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Prints.

Despite Gartenfeld’s claim that this marks a new chapter for Abney, the inspiration for “Big Butch Energy” is rooted in the artist’s reinterpretation of the gender norms she saw in the media.

“About a year ago I decided on movies like Animal house and Porky’s — a particular movie genre that had an impact in my younger years in informing my perceptions of masculinity and femininity. “Big Butch Energy” isn’t specifically about the realities of Greek life,” Abney explains. as a male-presenting female. This is one of the first exhibitions to bring the representation of male black women to the fore.”

By inviting viewers to “I spy” cut-and-paste panels of found material replete with movie clues and allusions that depict college life at its most gritty and raunchy, Abney recontextualizes a US media fact that leaks into global perceptions and stereotypes regarding gender achievement and toxic expressions of masculinity and femininity. (Not to mention the lack of black and brown bodies actively participating in these environments.) Still, there is humor in the works on display, and for the artist there is a playful play that adds to the fleeting hilarity of these social environments. hearing challenges. Titled pieces Homosexuals and The light skin comeback, Abney subverts the absurdity of the media’s portrayal of Greek life while amplifying the potential for black and brown people to inhabit the lead roles. From an all-black cast of cheerleaders proclaiming “Go Femmes” to the messy pizza stains on a white shirt surrounded by a tie-dye backdrop, the works simultaneously evoke college life and the experience of being black and queer in America.

Abney’s ability to construct a collage from paper in a range of colors, shapes and sizes, using mediums such as spray paint, is innovative in its own right. What appears to be a traditional painting rendered entirely on a single layer is a jigsaw puzzle in which the artist uses kneading and gluing together sharp geometric shapes to form a fluid, cohesive composition. “Big Butch Energy” evokes the viewer with its animated color schemes and combos, which resonate with each individual’s lived experience and encounter with the social realities and media representation of collegiate life.

Abney says, “I hope the public will enjoy and appreciate the process of printing and collage, and perhaps consider ways in which they may or may not have been complicit in perpetuating harmful ideas about 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; icamiami.org. Entrance is free.

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