Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Conversations on Contemporary Art and Nail Salon, Coal City, IL

me conversing with artist Kelly Alexander and her mother, they did not get their fingernails painted

On Feb. 20, 2011 I initiated the piece, Conversations on Contemporary Art and Nail Salon at the Coal City Art Fair, held at the Coal City High School. My position as "Visiting Alumni Artist" granted me the opportunity to show my home town what I have become, as an artist and as a person. I would have preferred to only set up my table, but it seemed that the school (and my former art teacher) needed some objects to make it seem like real art. In this piece I was hoping to introduce visitors to contemporary art through engaged discussion on current trends. I used the action of painting fingernails, once as an ice-breaker, and also as a starting point for discussions on what art can be and is today. While painting finger-tips I asked my participants, "What would you say if I told that that what I am doing right now [painting fingernails] is art?" Often, participants (whom were overwhelmingly students) agreed that either "it was like painting, but on fingernails" or that this action was art "because there are colors." I then followed by asking if our conversation, just me talking to them, could be art. This was a slightly harder sell, but surprisingly only a few completely abstained from this group. Relationships between my creative-conversation-action were made, by students and myself, to stage performances, object-less art (art where the object is missing), and straight forward "telling" of ideas. For older students I would briefly explain what Relational Aesthetics was, using Rirkrit Tiravanija as an example. These connections and investigations were only made by the students (kids). The adults all took rolls between passive interest and glazed-over obligation. The conversations with the adults were always one sided (sans the talk I had with Kelly Alexander and her mom).

painting iridescent yellow on my grandmother's fingernails

graph detailing how many of each age group (split into Adult and Kid at the age of 18) participated in this piece

Two unexpected things happened. I should have expected that mothers and fathers would be weary of some strange guy that wants to paint the fingernails of their daughter. As kids (as young as Kindergarten students) got their fingernails painted their parents usually hoovered questionably close to my table. I only touched my participants with the fingernail-polish brush. Also, I only asked about the art fair, what art they liked, if they went to school in Coal City, and what they thought about my art and this performance. Still, most parents where suspicious. I hope that later these parents checked their responses to my actions later, hopefully landing in some contemplative place about (my) art. The other thing was the problematic action of painting the nails of these young girls. (I only painted the nails of one boy, who was around 17 years old.) It was a bit bothersome for me to be in a position where my art action was wholly buying into and supporting the construction of gender normativity. I'd like to think that the kids would question why I was painting they're nails because the context and act was not normal, but I can't count on 5 to 18 year-old kids being so introspective. In addition to asking if my actions were art, I often asked what these participants thought about boys/men/me wearing fingernail polish. Perhaps this question was a good start for seeding the contemplation of how gender is constructed and enacted, but I believe that I need to re-think this act. I'd like not to remove fingernail painting from this piece, but to shift it to a more aware position.