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Movement in a Manicure

By Kayli Hertel

For Victoria Shen, doing a manicure is more than just an act of beauty; it is the beginning of a conversation. Shen began the Modernist Manicure project as a way to transfer famous modern art pieces onto the canvas of fingernails. Clients choose an art piece by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, and Mark Rothko and then Shen paints a mini recreation of the piece on their fingernails. Shen, who is an art school graduate and has a background in printmaking, said that the process is about the ideologies behind the work. “The format of giving a manicure would spawn a conversation,” said Shen of the mini versions of the modern art pieces. “It gives you an individual art experience.”

Kayli Hertel: How has your educational background inspired and influenced this project?

Victoria Shen: Replicating Modernist paintings can demand patience and precision. Even performing basic manicures well takes so much practice. After graduating art school, I went through manicurist school, became licensed, and worked at a nail salon for the better part of a year before I felt comfortable launching the project, which is ironic because Modernist art encouraged the deskilling of artists. Different techniques are used for each painting; my arsenal of tools includes very fine paintbrushes, makeup sponges, and a pen barrel that I use as a blow dart for nail lacquer. The nail polish is an interesting medium because it has specific qualities that make it more challenging to work with than traditional artist paints like acrylic, oil, and watercolor. Sometimes, you have to really cajole it into doing what you want, but other times its behavior lends itself perfectly to the reproductions.

KH: Describe the relationship between Relational Aesthetics and Modernism.

VS: Really the core of the project is about playing two art historical movements against each other. Though Modernism and Relational Aesthetics ideologically clash, both set up very grand endeavors and imply there is a moral high ground for which people can strive and, in my opinion, ultimately fail. The project is set up as a way to both undermine and reconcile the two schools of thought, and I thought the process of giving/receiving manicures would be a good way to re-perform Modernist and Relational Aesthetic strategies while offering an intimate format in which to discuss the way their ideological tenets weigh in on our lives.

KH: How can monochromes and a male-dominated art world affect a piece of work and this project?

VS: Monochromes are paintings that are a single color or hue. The joke of this project is that because the monochrome is the prototypical painting of Modernism, then all manicures are Modernist works. In both Modernism and Relational Aesthetics, the main players are all male. The ethos of Modernism specifically is overly masculine and exclusionary, so I sought to directly undermine many of their principles in this project.

Shen currently has a studio in Dorchester as well as in Boston’s Fort Point. Dorchester is known for its many nail and beauty salons, but when Shen purchased property in the area, it was not a salon: it was an open area with a gallery. Within the gallery, it was of interest that there was a manicurist table left in the center of the room from the previous owner – who did not own a nail salon. With a laugh, Shen noted that fate had a hand in this event. “I couldn’t take that as anything but a sign.”

The project has had quite a turnout since its open studio held in early September at Shen’s Fort Point studio. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, known for its contemporary vibe, decided to host the project as an exhibit during the month of November. By hosting the project, the museum was able to express Shen’s vision of art as a conversational piece for everyone to enjoy.


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