A Necessary Shift: A Glimpse Into The Work of Helen Maurene Cooper
Written as the exhibition essay for Nailed, an exhibition of Helen Maurene Cooper's work at the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower
The subculture of nail art has made its way from the salon and city streets and into trailblazing art spaces through varying degrees of familiarity. It has become a tool used by artists and curators that offers a way for an art audience outside of this subculture to newly engage in something that was previously a regular practice of certain segments of society. As it is dropped within this new context, it can become diluted and lose the roots of its traditions. What separates Maurene Cooper’s take on nail art from that of other artists is her attempt to assemble a more holistic view. Unlike her counterparts who have re-contextualized nail art in a way that caters to flash fad consumers, Cooper reverts our attention back to the root by highlighting the imagination in the craft and the long-term, ever-present patrons of this art. Through Nailed, Cooper has made a place for this art form to exist within a contemporary art dialogue without excluding the people and culture that are at its foundation.
In the early iterations of this work, Cooper pushes the limits of photography by approaching the work like a painting or collage. The imagery is thick and impenetrable. The color vibrates. The textures are tactile and luscious. The photos are a playful reference to the density often found in abstract painting or the careful composition of a still life. The objects in the photographs build upon themselves with a strategic overlapping often used in collage. What makes them captivating, along with this alluring mix of elements, is the rhythm achieved throughout. This rhythm leaves our eyes in a state of unrest as they move back and forth from one depth to another, weaving in and out of focus. At this point the pieces don’t simply act as photographs. They become all of these mediums at once, causing us to occasionally forget their true flatness. The images more or less blur the lines between the nails and the background materials. We’re inclined to get lost in a sea of unexpected yet familiar objects—objects that could easily be a source of inspiration for the design or become incorporated into the nails themselves. Just as the artist's photographs mimic the approach used by painters and collage artists, the layering of color, the building of texture and the creation of depth imitate the techniques of nail technicians. Like her photographs, the nails are a hybrid of materials and styles achieved through elaborate brush strokes, metallic pieces and what is referred to as “junk”—the three dimensional objects built into the design of the nails.
As we move into the more recent portrait work, Cooper takes a step back from the nails and their world of inspiration. The people who create or carry these tiny works in their daily lives become the focal point. By doing this, she makes it clear that the creator and the wearer of the nails are an essential part of the dialogue. At this point the work stops being an investigation into and a stretching of the medium. It now becomes a chance to put a face to the hands. Nevertheless, it is still in conversation with the elasticity of her medium. Only now it is speaking to portraiture’s ability (or lack of ability) to depict personality or a constructed identity.
This identity begins to further take shape via a negotiation between Cooper and the women she is photographing. At times you can see much more of Cooper's direction in the composition as the gestures subtly reference poses that have become motifs in portraiture. On other occasions we can see that it is slightly more loose, collaborative and impulsive.
Rather than simply capturing or facilitating the consumption of nail art by an art audience, Cooper has chosen to fully immerse herself in the culture by incorporating it into her own identity. From early on in the series she has worn nails in the style of the ones she photographs. As a result, her hands have become a key for access into the world she is documenting. The technicians and regulars at Jazzy Nails, the salon that sets the scene for many of her photos, who once looked at her suspiciously, now see her as family. It is arguable that the level of comfort with her subjects and the ease of collaboration were a direct result of this display of commitment. Though the details of Cooper’s personal style decisions aren’t explicitly present in the photographs, it lends itself greatly to her process and becomes apparent in her most magnetic portraits. The success of the series has come to depend on this simple action.
The title Nailed suggests that the nails are at the center of the exhibition. But as is often the case with portraits, whispered side notes and quiet details begin to compete with the expressions of the subjects. This conflict can easily be seen as problematic and damaging to the clarity and conciseness of the series. But instead, consider how Cooper’s shift in approach may be her cunning way of redirecting your thoughts away from the superficial and pulling you closer to what is deeply rooted at the core of this work. The color, composition and the eyes of her sitters draw you in. But the questions that the photographs raise are what keep you there. Who are these women? How do they relate to one another? How do they relate to the photographer? What is the intention and motivation behind placing this subject within an art context, which is oftentimes uninviting to the very people it is documenting? Can nails be indicators of class and social status? And how does that change when the setting they're created in is different? When does this work become exploitative? What happens when the fad fades? By putting aesthetics aside and focusing on Cooper’s conceptual devices we can begin to see how Nailed reaches beyond the realm of abstract photography and portraiture. It serves as a stepping stone into discourse about subcultures being launched into widespread popularity for better or for worse, the politics of access, and how nail art can play a role in acceptance or exclusivity.
Within the context of the recent fad of artists and curators who use nail art as a device for engaging audiences, Nailed offers a refreshingly nuanced and comprehensive look. By turning a lens onto the alluring and unexpected visual components of this craft as well as the people behind it, Maurene Cooper proves that nail art can be much more than a form of adornment and fashion. In her work, nail art is a way to push the boundaries of photography and call into question the exploitative tendencies in popular culture and art. It is a magnifying glass on the underpinnings of our social interactions. And for her, it has become a way to establish and connect with a new extended family. Through Cooper, nail art ceases to be singular. The nails are beautiful and biting. They are alluring and provocative. They serve as the springboard for Cooper to investigate her medium, but also bring to light the social discourse that is inextricable from her process.
Published for the exhibition Nailed: Handwork at City Gallery, a gallery of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in Chicago, IL.
Dice, streamers and swirls, archival pigment print, 40" x 26", 2011Rocker, archival pigment print. 20" x 24", 2013.