Thank you, 30 Americans exhibit, for giving me a new favorite artist to obsess over: Nina Chanel Abney, whose work in the Frist exhibit includes an installation of 25 small paintings and one monumental one, is one of the most interesting young artists in the show. I was so glad to learn that she'd be coming through Nashville to speak about her work, and jumped at the chance to do a quick Q&A with her over email earlier this week. Read our correspondence below, and listen to her speak about her work in person tonight at the Frist — her Artist's Perspective lecture starts at 6:30 p.m.
Country Life: In the documentary they screen in the exhibit, you talk about your inexperience with contemporary art education growing up. I'm fascinated with that, specifically because I think this exhibit might show a lot of Nashville kids what great contemporary art can look like, perhaps even for the first time. Can you talk a little bit about your lack of exposure to art, and if it affected how you come to your work?
Nina Chanel Abney: I am from the Midwest, specifically the south suburbs of Chicago. Back when I was in college, I feel like unless you attended the Art Institute of Chicago, most wouldn't have much experience with contemporary art. I didn't even really understand how artists made money at that time, let alone what performance art or an installation was. I just think with most things, especially in the creative fields, if you reside in the heart of the city or close proximity to, you are exposed to much more and even "ahead of the game" in that you are right in the midst of the action.
When I first moved to New York, I think my lack of exposure to contemporary art and the "art world" gave me a naivety that allowed me to approach my work with a complete sense of freedom. But it also pushed me to rely on my intuition, and I have been working intuitively ever since.
One of your pieces in this exhibit is made up of 20 or 30 small paintings, but they're labeled as one whole piece. Is there a story the paintings are telling? I feel like there's a demonic Mike Bloomberg in there, and what's with the yellow flames??
I will actually touch on this piece during my lecture, but the set of watercolors, I think 25, were originally created to be sold individually for a benefit. The Rubells happened to stop by my gallery when I dropped them off and insisted that they be kept as a set. And they bought all of them. I of course was extremely excited until I the reality hit that I now didn't have any work for the benefit. I ended up having to make 25 more watercolors that night!
Ha! Can you fill me in on what else you'll cover in your Artist's Perspective talk?
I'm basically going to take everyone through the evolution of my work. The 30 Americans exhibition had it's debut in Miami in 2007, the winter after I graduated from my MFA program at Parsons School of Design. My work has changed quite a bit over the past six years.
What kind of relationships do you have with the other artists in the exhibition? Were you introduced to most of them through the Rubells, or had you already known them before the show was organized? I had the chance to spend a little time with Carrie Mae Weems when she was in Nashville for her retrospective, and I swear she is one of the most charismatic people I've ever been around. I was seriously hanging on every word.
I'm friendly with nearly everyone in the exhibition. A lot of the artists reside in the New York area so I always see everyone around at different openings. I knew a couple of the artists prior to the 30 Americans exhibition, but the majority of the artists I met for the first time at the opening in Miami. When the show started I essentially just graduated from school, so I literally went from admiring the other artists from afar, reading about them in books and magazines to being included in an show alongside them. Everything came full circle faster than I could have ever imagined.