Artist Nina Chanel Abney Cements Her Place in the Contemporary Canon With a Colossal Upstate Show This Summer

Nina Chanel Abney.

What does it mean to be a monument in the making? At 42, Nina Chanel Abney is the rare artist who has earned the elite seal of institutional approval—with prized commissions from the likes of the Lincoln Center, work held in the collections of art world megaliths like MoMA and the Whitney, an excess of solo shows under her belt—and remained strikingly current, popular even. The NCA Extended Universe includes collaborations with Jordan, Timberland, and EA Sports; New Yorker magazine covers; and even a thousand-piece puzzle. (This constellation of design initiatives will soon be formalized under the name of Super Cool Studios.)

Abney is inviting you along for the ride, but on her own terms: You can assemble, dismantle, and reconfigure the puzzle as much as you want—it’s still a work of art, signed by her. The Illinois native has navigated the expectations for the contemporary artist, especially the artist of color, to be a funambulist of sorts with a crucial instrument in tow. “Humor has always been more than a mere stylistic choice—it is my weapon and my shield,” she tells CULTURED. “It disarms, ensuring that the first interaction with my work is one of accessibility rather than confrontation. Yet, beneath this initial engagement lies a labyrinth of complexity.”

Implied in that maze is a farrago of themes Abney has unspooled and probed throughout her two-decade-long career—from the still bubbling effects of settler-colonialism and weight of racial stereotypes to the velvet hammer of latent homophobia. In her work, which has its roots in painting but pushed past the canvas in recent years, Abney lays these subjects out with a trickster’s touch: “I aim to lure viewers into a space of false comfort, then confront them with a reality that is anything but comfortable.” The New York-based artist’s tradition of sitting with the trouble, instead of just depicting it, continues this month with a colossal show at Jack Shainman Gallery’s Kinderhook outpost, The School. “LIE DOGGO” pairs a brand-new series of paintings with Abney’s first foray into sculpture, an interactive digital art installation (the fruit of an inaugural residency with CryptoPunks, an NFT collection), and expansive murals taking advantage of the site’s architecture. With it, she continues to forge her place in art history and offer users the visual vocabulary to understand, if they stay and think awhile.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening on May 18, Abney sat down with CULTURED to talk about her journey into Cubism, making work that is “harder to digest,” and why the discourse around art and identity needs to include digital technology.


CULTURED: Your work has explored the intersection of pop culture and politics through bold, at times darkly humorous compositions. How do you view your current work in conversation with your earlier output? 

Nina Chanel Abney: My work continues to evolve, but it maintains a core commitment to exploring social narratives through a lens that is both critical and playful. In my earlier pieces, I focused more on laying out scenes directly influenced by my personal experiences and observations. As I’ve developed, I’ve pushed into broader cultural and political dialogues. In this process, I have delved more into abstraction and new mediums, such as sculpture and digital formats. This has offered new ways to engage with the themes I’m passionate about, allowing for a more tactile and immersive experience with sculpture, and a dynamic, interactive element with digital works. These new mediums enable me to play with space and viewer interaction in ways that flat canvases don’t.

CULTURED: Your work is often in conversation with the legacies of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Aaron Douglas. How does engaging with the works of these artists influence your creative process?

Abney: From Matisse, I draw my love for bold color, which slices through the visual noise, striking a balance between harmony and discord. Picasso’s Cubism broke the mold of traditional form; his deconstruction of the human figure mirrors my own quest to dissect societal roles and norms. Douglas, with his lyrical portrayal of African American life, injects a narrative richness that resonates with my own cultural commentary. Their legacies are woven into my artistic DNA, providing a foundation upon which I construct my vision—a vision that seeks not to replicate but to reinterpret and reimagine.

CULTURED: Between your shows “Royal Flush” at the Nasher Museum in 2017 and “Hot to Trot. Not.” at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018, your figures moved from a more rounded cartoonish look to Cubism. What drew you to this more angular, boxy figuration?

Abney: My journey into Cubism was almost a homecoming—a realization that abstraction could offer a greater freedom to explore form and narrative. The angular, boxy figurations that define my more recent works are a deliberate choice, meant to echo the fractured realities of the subjects I portray. These forms challenge the viewer to piece together the story, much like solving a puzzle. Cubism allows me to manipulate time and space on the canvas, making the figures dynamic, as if caught in a perpetual dance between the seen and the unseen, the said and the unsaid.


CULTURED: You’ve described your work as “easy to swallow, hard to digest.” Has that balance shifted over time, ever becoming “hard to swallow, harder to digest?”

Abney: Absolutely. The balance can shift depending on the themes and issues I’m tackling at any given time. As the social and political climates evolve, so too does the urgency and intensity of my response through my art. Sometimes, the subjects demand a blunter, more confrontational approach that may be “hard to swallow” for some. This directness can make the work “harder to digest” as it challenges viewers to confront uncomfortable truths and complexities that they might prefer to ignore. My aim is always to provoke thought and dialogue, so while the approach varies, the intent to stir deeper reflection and reaction remains consistent. This tension between accessibility and challenge is what keeps the conversation alive and evolving.

CULTURED: “LIE DOGGO” is described as a “monumental show” in your career. What are you most looking forward to about this chapter of your practice?

Abney: I’m most looking forward to embracing and showcasing the full breadth of my evolution as an artist. I am particularly excited about further exploring new mediums, which allows me to experiment and express my ideas in innovative ways that challenge both myself and the audience. This show marks a point where I am moving forward without a sense of obligation to any particular style or expectation. I’m doing what I want, working from a place of heightened confidence. This newfound freedom is liberating; it allows me to own my space within the art world more fully and assertively. I’m aware that by continuously charting new territory, the immediate reception of my work may vary, and some pieces might not be fully appreciated until much later. This perspective is both a challenge and a thrill as it fuels my creative process and solidifies my commitment to pushing boundaries and exploring the unexplored. This chapter of my career is about asserting that independence and relishing in the creative journey, wherever it may lead.

CULTURED: The title of this exhibition—“LIE DOGGO”—means “to remain inconspicuously in wait, suggests a strategic invisibility and biding one’s time, reflecting on when to observe from the shadows and when best to act.” Given the political nature of your work, is this liminal space between observation and action a call to sit in this space, or to come out of it?

Abney: I would like to encourage viewers to consider their own positions within this space. Are we merely observers, or are we participants? When is it crucial to step out of the shadows and act? I am urging a reflection on the moments we choose and/or choose not to engage directly with the issues that shape our world.

CULTURED: “LIE DOGGO” marks a point of expansion, including working in large scale, painted aluminum sculpture. What drew you to this medium? Was it always on the horizon of your practice?

Abney: The transition to sculpture marks a key expansion in my practice. Sculpture had always been on the horizon; I was merely waiting for the right moment to delve into this medium. The work of Marisol has been inspiring to my approach, while the legacy of Edmonia Lewis has been particularly motivating for me. As a pioneering Black woman sculptor, Lewis’s journey resonates, especially considering the ongoing lack of representation of Black women in the medium. By embracing sculpture, I am not just expanding my artistic practice, but also consciously continuing the conversation that these influential women have advanced. This move into sculpture is both a tribute to their legacies and a personal challenge.

CULTURED: At the end of the exhibition is an interactive digital art installation, which is the result of your residency with CryptoPunks. Did digital art feel intuitive, alien, somewhere in between? How do you see yourself engaging with it in the future?

Abney: My engagement with digital art has roots, predating my collaboration with CryptoPunks. Two years ago, I co-founded and created a platform called GODA, designed specifically to bridge the gap between fine artists and Web3. This initiative, along with my own NFT project, Super Cool World, exemplifies my commitment to integrating digital technology into my artistic practice. This ongoing exploration is not just about adapting to new mediums but about actively shaping them to extend the narratives and themes I explore in my physical artworks. As we continue to evolve digitally, my role is both of a pioneer and an interpreter, using digital platforms to expand the discourse around art and identity in the context of an increasingly virtual world.

"LIE DOGGO" by Nina Chanel Abney is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery's The School in Kinderhook, New York, from May 18 through October 5, 2024.