Story Time: Vanity Projects is Elevating the Status of Nail Art Saturday 01 June, 2013


Get ready to embrace nail artistry as the art form it is. With Vanity Projects and a new high-art-concept nail salon, Rita de Alencar Pinto seeks to sync the worlds of nail art and contemporary art—and make you think differently about nails.

[I wrote this story for Nail It! magazine; however, it never made it to print. It’s a long-ish read, but it’s worth it if you care even the tiniest bit about nails! —Karie]

Every Saturday during the months of January, February and March, when you entered the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1 in New York, a familiar scent hit your nostrils: nail polish. If you followed your nose to the “Confettisystems” installation of the famed contemporary art museum, you’d find another art form that’s gaining respect at an increasing speed: nail art, supplied by the Vanity Projects pop-up, a makeshift salon that hosts a revolving door of the best of the best nail artists. The mastermind behind it? Rita de Alencar Pinto. “I conceived of the idea for Vanity Projects three years ago after my peers started opening small galleries in Manhattan’s Lower East Side,” says de Alencar Pinto. Like her peers, she sought to create a space that would house an art installation, but unlike her peers, de Alencar Pinto wanted something a little off the beaten art world track. Enter Brooklyn-based nail artist Fleury Rose. “I started to get some very intricate two- or even three-hour-long manicures by Fleury, and I became inspired to put the two ideas together in a way that would elevate the experience,” de Alencar Pinto says.

To steer the project from becoming “gimmicky or low-brow,” de Alencar Pinto delved into her manicurist homework. “I started to research the nail artists in the same way I would approach curating an exhibition. Social media was a central part of finding out who was out there and which artists were the best,” she asserts. This lead to visits with famed editorial nail artist Naomi Yasuda (a Lady Gaga favorite), as well as an across-the-pond meeting with The Illustrated Nail artist Sophie Harris-Greenslade in London.

Vanity-Projects-at-Moma-PS1 copy

(An aerial view of the Vanity Projects pop-up in the Confettisystems installation at MoMA PS1)

As the concept behind Vanity Projects gestated, de Alencar Pinto turned back to a nail artist’s most useful tool, social media, to start branding her cause. Her tumblog, Gettin’ Nail’d, came into creation on image-heavy microblog site Tumblr, and she began hosting Gettin’ Nail’d events at art-world professionals’ homes. Within months, de Alencar Pinto was quickly bridging the fine art world with the nail art stratosphere—so quickly, in fact, that just one year ago, she received an invitation to bring her Gettin’ Nail’d event to artsy bookstore Phaidon Soho last spring, followed by a road trip to the NADA Hudson art fair. This was no ordinary road trip; de Alencar Pinto rented a 34-foot luxury RV, and outfitted it with manicurists Amy “El Salonsito” Vega and Harris-Greenslade, who were at the ready to trick-out nails for the fair’s discerning attendees while video art looped on a flat screen in the background. It was at the Miami leg of NADA that De Alencar Pinto met Angela Goding, the assistant director for Development for MoMA PS1. From there, Vanity Projects pop-up found its art-world footing.

On the day I stop by, artists from near (NYC’s Jessica Washick) and far (Los Angeles-based Britney Tokyo) are busily hand painting line art and fastening jewels to their tiny canvases. For this project, de Alencar Pinto mobilized a stable of rotating nail artists that she holds in esteem: the aforementioned Yasuda, Rose and Vega, as well as Chicago’s Ashley “Astrowifey” Crowe, LA-based Natalie “Nail Swag” Nichole, Virgina-based Regina Rodriguez and Tokyo transplant Mei Kawajiri, among others. Again, social media played a big role. “It’s critical to bringing artists into visibility,” de Alencar Pinto notes of photo-sharing sites like Instagram. Additionally, Brass, the director behind nail art documentary Nailgasm*, helped put de Alencar Pinto in touch with several artists featured in the film. Ever the curator, de Alencar Pinto reached out to manicurists who have their own signature look, but whose styles varied from each other. “I like having a mix. Each artist has a special forte and particular style,” she says of the handpicked talent.


(The nail art board of the incredibly talented Naomi Yasuda)

During its run, Vanity Projects saw a constant stream of nail art lovers—and curious museum-goers—flow through the pop-up. The discussion of “nail art as art” came into play on more than one occasion; after all, the museum setting called for it. Suzanne E. Shapiro, a research assistant at the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art’s The Costume Institute and author of the soon-to-be-released book The Modern Manicure: A Visual History, espoused, “Nail artists use many of the same skills as painters and jewelry designers. But the fact that nail art is always done on the spot and in front of the patron gives it an almost performance element, too. No one can dispute these nail artists’ feel for color, composition and overall harmony. What makes them especially amazing is their ability to improvise, 10 times over and on such a tiny canvas.”

The question becomes: How do you decipher good—or even excellent—nail art? “I think the criteria for looking at art is similar to [critiquing] nail art. Clean lines, geometric gem placement, pared-down concepts, color blocking and hand drawn detailed drawing are all part of good nail art composition,” de Alencar Pinto opines. Even fine art has its critics, and de Alencar Pinto laughs at the idea of a nail art critic (which, let’s be honest: Everyone’s one). “I think the top artists are all their own best critics. Like with anything you see in abundance, the good things stand out.” She pauses, and then quickly adds, “Nail art is such an empowering thing for women that I would feel bad to critique work publicly. But, having said that—I am pretty discerning.”


(Nail artist Jessica Washick paints her signature color block designs at the pop up at MoMA PS1.)

But is nail art akin to fine art? “Do I think nail art is fine art in the same way we see art hanging on our walls? I would say no,” de Alencar Pinto argues. “It doesn’t share the same legacy or art history lineage. But as art, fashion and music have become lifestyles, and individuals and brands have become more assimilated, nail art has come into the front view. I think [some] nail artists are really talented artists who translate ideas or concepts onto a small surface. It can be argued—and I relish the dialogue.”

And she invites anyone and everyone to share in this dialogue with her when she opens her first salon in Manhattan’s Lower East Side this summer. Naturally, de Alencar Pinto’s nail atelier is conceptual: “I’m planning on having an artist-in-residence program where I will be inviting manicurists from all over the world to come work in the salon for a limited time,” she says wistfully. She even has an artists’ apartment lined up for visiting manicurists, “sort of like the Tyra [Banks’] model house [on America’s Next Top Model]!” she jokes. In the end, for de Alencar Pinto it’s about bringing stellar nails to the people. “I’m inspired by the idea of having a lot of rotating talent,” she says. “There’s a laundry list of artists that I am dying to work with!”

* If you haven’t seen Nailgasm, you should! The magazine I’ve worked on all of my professional career, Nailpro, is a part of it!

Karie L. Frost Signature


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