Nail art has an undeniably eye-popping allure that’s sparked many surreal and delicious ideations in the art world. But for all the attention it garners in virtual reality and on the fingers of pop stars, the creative labor it’s based on is performed by women who identify not as artists but as nail technicians.
It’s to these women, and to “lady hustlers everywhere,” that artist Helen Maurene Cooper dedicates her first book, Paint & Polish: Cultural Economy and Visual Culture from the West Side. The book combines a selection of Cooper’s photo-based work with curated essays and conversations to form a dynamic examination of the aesthetics of Chicago’s West Side nail salons, “as sites of urban working class communities and micro-economies.”
“Around Chicago, I began to notice long acrylic nails where the design would vary from finger to finger but the color palette would remain the same,” Cooper recalls. “The detail on each nail was precise, crisp, clean, flawless.”
Cooper’s fascination eventually led her to the door of a West Side salon. Once inside, she felt compelled to photograph the salon and its nail techs, almost entirely Black and Latino women, to understand the styles, and “to tell the stories of the artists.”
“I came to all of this because of my work (since graduate school) on the aesthetics of femininity, having done multiple collaborative or participatory projects,” Cooper says.
In conversation with Patricia Reed, Cooper addresses an infamous harangue of such “participatory” practices, penned by art critic Claire Bishop. One of Bishop’s problems with so-called do-gooder art — she has lots — is that artist collaborations with marginalized communities are unavoidably exploitative.
“I think it is both exploitative and generous,” Cooper says with frank ambivalence. “It is still very much an ongoing debate that I have with myself… It’s also important to mention that everyone I work with gets a digital copy of their image, so they have the ability to use it for marketing in whatever ways they want.”
In #Nailbait and Polished, Cooper collaborated with salon owners Yara Fernandez and Glynnus Alexander, respectively, on site-specific photo and wallpaper works installed in the women’s shops. Both projects included portraiture influenced by the iconic images of Patrick Nagel, whose gestural work has graced the walls of salons since the 80s.
“The way that I approached both of those projects was almost like a commercial idea where I pitched a particular ‘look’ to them I had envisioned, what my reference points would be, and when they were on board with that, we proceeded making the nail designs together,” Cooper says.
She counts these exchanges– transactional, collaborative, and interpersonal — as integral elements of her work. “One of the major currents in the project is talking about intimacy, and intimacy between women,” Cooper says. “It’s about repeatedly coming to someone, but so much of what she does is about touch.”
This intimacy supports relationships that can span decades and serves as the foundation of the West Side’s nail art microeconomy — salons providing jobs for women in the community and the community using their money to support these businesses.
“They are the manifestation of an American fantasy of self-created prosperity,” Cooper tells Creators. “None of these women went to banks for small business loans in creating their salons. In one way, these businesses are grass roots models, while also being part of a more underground economy.”
Cooper too, becomes part of this microeconomy of lady hustlers by patronizing the salons, bartering her photos for access to the nail artists and their clients, and by facilitating the consideration of nail art as art object.
“By presenting the work of nail artists in this art context, Cooper forces one to confront this creative practice differently,” says Ryan Blocker, one of the book’s essayists. “Is it now art because it is hanging on a gallery wall or presented as part of a collection? How might our popular assumptions about which creative products are deemed “art” be functions of race, gender, or class?”
These implicit “but is it art?” questions are worthy thoughts to think, but perhaps they’re beside the point.
“Their designs, linework, and detail rival that of professionally trained painters, though their canvasses are considerably smaller,” Blocker says. “Nail art in the salon and on the women who seek it out is creative production worthy of celebration and admiration. It doesn’t need the gallery.”