Is Fingernail Painting Art?

02/13/2013 4:00 AM |

My nails have looked like bedroom wallpaper for the last week. I had them painted by Jessica Washick, one of four nail artists working at Rita Pinto’s Vanity Projects in the basement of PS1. The group of girls will be working there again on Saturdays through March 16 (excluding February 23) from 12pm to 6pm, and I plan to go back to change up my nails. Right now, two are coral-and-white striped, two are green with roses, and the rest are a flat coral color. I like them a lot more than is reasonable.

The project itself may live more in the realm of virtuoso fashion than fine art, a field that museums (or at least The Met) have established a tradition of showcasing. In 2011 the museum broke attendance records with its Alexander McQueen show, and in 2012 it debuted its Schiaparelli and Prada exhibition Impossible Conversations. With each of these shows, though, many of us get confused about how to describe the work—is it art or fashion? Washick opts for the latter. “What’s great about nail art is that the client determines its success,” she told me, before conceding she had trouble articulating her own criteria for success. “You just know it when you see it.”

Pinto, a Hunter MFA graduate, sees the aesthetics and evaluation criteria of nail painting as similar to those in the fine-art world. “Surprisingly enough, the same criteria for a good painting in some cases is the same for nail art,” she told me. “Good composition, clean lines, contrasting color combinations, and geometric gem placement are a few ways to decipher a great nail artist. There are a million different ways to approach the work, and it’s exciting to see where these talented artists take their inspirations.”

Both Pinto and Washick talk about the importance of Tumblr to this subculture of artists; it’s an easy way to share images of each other’s work, and there are a lot of nail enthusiasts on the social network. Washick’s Tumblr, U DON’T NEED A MAN, U NEED A MANICURE, is particularly impressive. On it, she pictures her own nails in plaid grunge, a Warhol-inspired Campbell’s Soup suite of nails, and a gold-and-fuchsia glitter gradient conceived for the holidays. I know I’m going to sound like a fashion magazine writing this, but they really are inventive, bold, and sexy.

Naomi Yasuda may be the best-known talent working with Vanity Projects: she did Madonna’s nails for last year’s Super Bowl and Alicia Keys’s nails for countless album covers and magazine spreads. El Salonsito and Astrowifey, two well-known nail artists, are also on the roster.

The big news for this group of women is that Pinto will open a nail salon on the Lower East Side this summer. “I hope to establish an artist-in-residence of sorts at the salon/atelier and will invite more international nail artists to come to New York and work with me for a few months at a time,”
Pinto explained.

That’s not the only instance of an art-world model being used in the store—the salon will also host video art. Clients who spend between 45 minutes and two hours waiting for their nails to dry may be a more captive audience for this work than those accustomed to passing through gallery spaces. “Generally, people do what I call a video art ‘drive-by,’ and they see moments if not snapshots of the work,” Pinto remarked. “Artists are increasingly adopting the video medium, and I think if people were to watch a work uninterrupted, in a space where they are a captive audience, they’ll cultivate a taste for the medium.”

Pinto makes a good point—and perhaps it’ll cut both ways. Artists and gallerists without much interest in nail art might easily cultivate a taste for it through a venue with such talented artists at work.

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