“It was really meant to be a tongue-in-cheek thing,” Somerville artist Victoria Shen tells me.
Through March 30, the 23-year-old School of the Museum of Fine Arts graduate is taking appointments for free “Modernist Manicures” at the Howard Art Project in Boston’s Fields Corner neighborhood. (For booking, e-mail ModernistMani@gmail.com.) “Each manicure is an opportunity to meditate over the Modernist legacy,” the announcement explains, “while sprawling canvases of the early 20th century are recreated in miniature on your hands.”
At this pop-up nail spa, you can select abstract paintings by star 20th century artists—Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Kazimir Malevich, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Piet Mondrian—that Shen will copy onto your nails. She’s done some 23 people so far. (Related post: See more photos here.)
“During my time in school I had a chip on my shoulder about the Modernists. They were such conservative jerks,” Shen says. “They want to ignore political context. They want to ignore social context. Especially Barnett Newman. He was a flat out jerk, talking about eliminating all femininity from his painting. … He talked about how he was transmitting the sublime. … That kind of lofty metaphysical thing kind of gets on my nerves.”
Instead, she says, “It’s really important to me that aesthetics is something that can be lived, and not just existing in this art historical, off-to-the-side state.”
So it’s a joke with a sharp point. Her mini Modernist masterpieces are feminine instead of masculine. They’re small instead of big. They’re crafty nail polish instead of “serious” oil painting. Her service is a free gift instead of exclusive million-dollar paintings. She physically changes you, and for a time your sense of yourself.
“They’re totally inextricably connected to gender power, monetary relations, and the culture of getting your nails done,” Shen says.
Shen had been making sound and video art, but was frustrated that it didn’t elicit much response from audiences. “I really wanted to do a piece where I talked to people,” she says.
The art world name for this sort of thing is relational aesthetics, a trendy form of contemporary art in which artists aim to foster live conversations via meals and tea parties and communal crafts workshops rather than making traditional paintings or sculptures.
The manicure is a cunning way to get into this territory. Relational aesthetics’ relations can often feel forced. But a visit to the manicure salon—like a visit to the doctor or barber or dentist—is traditionally an occasion for conversation between the professional and the customer. The conversation naturally arises as your body gets worked on. And this chat is often confessional and intimate because there’s a feeling that somehow the conversation is confidential. Shen has found herself talking with Howard Art Project visitors about art history and life and hobbies and where they’re from.
Of course, manicurists aren’t highly esteemed positions. There’s often a power disparity between the practitioner and the client. And race often underlies it.
“When you come in it’s the Asian nail person. I’m kind of owning that exploited nail lady person,” says Shen, who grew up in San Francisco, the child of immigrants—her mom from Cambodia, her dad from China. “It’s kind of at some point me doing drag, playing the stereotype.”
And then there’s the reality. Before embarking on this project, Shen says she spent four months in nail school, got state licensed and worked for eight months in a Fenway-area salon, where she figured out that sort of job wasn’t for her.
“Now I just really enjoy doing the nails. Doing the paintings is pleasurable to me,” Shen says. “…What makes me really happy is … [visitors] legitimately get an aesthetic pleasure from getting their nails done.”
This program aired on March 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.