Comedians are held to account for the strength and immutability of their material, artists innovate in personal, technical or communicative ways. Both, in some sense, are reducible to the discovery of a new language. The shape and scale of these new languages is where the artist, like the comedian, finds their existence.
Nail varnish is like the icing on the beauty cake – Mary Helen Bowers
They have to express themselves in an incontrovertible way; critics might argue that they don’t get it, but it has to be inarguable that someone does. If that gossamer truth is assailed, it signals in its lonely solemnity, death clearing its throat and the chasm of obscurity opening. However, success is its own virtuous reward and since the 1990s SYRETT (Daniel Syrett) has straddled both the commercial and the fine art worlds. But easily and without discomfort?
No. The work is problematic. His paintings don’t sit quietly amongst all the clones of American expressionism or the laconic voices of European realism. It’s nail varnish that appeals to a cosmetic ideal of beauty! How can you compare Stravinsky to the Spice Girls? And how can you do that as a tall man on the wrong side of 15?
But aren’t we asking to define the boundaries of our art within accepted elitist terms? Like situationist handbooks bound in sandpaper, art should deface what it rubs against. And Syrett’s work rubs against a lot. It’s abrasively fancy, it’s precious in an offhand way, it works but never conspicuously hard. But using nail varnish as a material is novel and his works sell. This immutable fact resonates with the artist’s fascination with art, commerce and brand, earned through years of commercial work.
SYRETT studied at Liverpool John Moores University and after graduating he designed for several major fashion brands in the U.S., France and Spain, as well as working on a portfolio of advertising, TV, film and music for clients such as ELLE, All Saints, EMI, Warner Records, BBC, Nokia and London Fashion Week. He returned to fine art with Runway Gallery, a platform that features his own work alongside several artists who share his view on art’s connection with fashion through beauty. A connection playfully explored through his discovery of nail varnish.
“I was looking for a new style of work and I was keen to have a link to fashion,” he recalls. “Although my degree was very fine art, I’ve been drawn to fashion and I feel fashion is more closely linked to sculpture than painting in many ways. I wanted to find a new medium that took me back to fashion and fabric and process. So nail varnish ticked a lot of boxes within my comfort zones. Plus, I’ve not heard of another artist using nail varnish as their medium before and that’s one of the reasons why I started working with it. I’m a little obsessed with ‘newness’, I think it’s my fashion background. Maybe it’s the only child in me, a desire to be different.
I’ve had to learn so much about nail varnish. I had to experiment a lot because each colour, brand or element makes the varnish behave in a very different manner. For instance, each pigment moves at a different speed and dries at different times. So colours or elements react with different colours. The pearlised colours separate and react with some of the other colours. Glitter doesn’t move quickly, so you need to either thin it out, or put it next to, or drop it onto a colour that moves quickly. And all this will be different between brands of nail varnish too. So I have built up what I call my dictionary, a notebook with notes about each colour, I weigh each one, describe its colour and texture and make notes about reactions with other colours. It’s been a lot easier now I’m sponsored by the brand True Brit London. They use all the same base ingredients, but sometimes to get a reaction I have to use a different brand to get the effect I want.