Frances Goodman’s manicured bed of nails

I meet Frances Goodman at the Goodman Gallery in the midst of installing her current show Nail Her. She is ­standing in the parking lot, smiling and discussing arrangements for manicures with the people from the ­gallery. From the look of her you would never imagine the scale of the installation happening inside.

We step into the gallery, its walls blackened for the show. To my right the first new work looms large: at around two metres long, you need some room to take it in.

From afar you can make out a white sculpted gown – its skirt of serpentine tendrils drilling and melting into the concrete floor. Step a little closer and you get a sense of the scales the tendrils are made up of, their white patina glaring in the spotlights of the gallery. On closer inspection, the dress is revealed to be layered in thousands of white fingernails, one on top of another.

The dress is part of Goodman’s first collaboration with designer Suzaan Heyns. The last time I saw them together was at Goodman’s show Till Death Us Do Part, where Heyns, and the rest of Jozi’s fashionable ladies, wore their own wedding gowns to celebrate the opening. It seems the collaboration has been a long time coming.

Goodman is no stranger to “material” obsessions. Her previous show featured a room of vajazzled vaginas (her own included) and, prior to that, fully hand-sequined luggage, embroidered silk panels of toilet graffiti and a room full of car bonnets emblazoned with lipstick-smears of revenge text.

As one walks through the gallery, it becomes clear just how far she has pushed the fingernail obsession. The gallery is covered in oozing, morphing, multicoloured nail sculptures that seem to be flowing from a source beneath the floor and behind the walls.

Here, they are snakes writhing together in an orgy of lacquered colour. There, they are claws, piercing through the black walls of the gallery. One resembles a Venus flytrap, with its “mouth” open and stamen protruding like a wet, glistening tongue. I admit: I blushed.

Another, Lady on Red, features what looks like a classic tattoo-graphic of a pin-up girl made entirely of Swarovski crystals on the reddest red nail polish you’ve ever seen.

Cotton paper
I had initially heard Goodman was also showing drawings, something I had never seen before from the artist. Underneath a pile of paper she unveiled said “drawings”. Around 30 sheets of cotton paper are delicately inscribed with messages and images. One reads: “Success is the best revenge”; another: “What is everything?” In the pile are sketches of octopuses and talons and suckers. They are all made entirely of false eyelashes.

Goodman tells me she met a woman in Harlem who told her that, although leaving behind an item of your clothing will mark your “territory” in your man’s home, the true mark of ownership is leaving behind a fingernail. That way not only can you be recognised in his home, but also by the presence of a missing nail on your own hand. She’s interested in this idea, the leave-behinds, the extension of the female body beyond its limitations as an object. A lot of Goodman’s work addresses this colonisation of space, particularly of the feminine space.

Under Goodman’s gaze, the feminine body is the real coloniser. Instead of being armed with weapons, her women use their eyes as guns and their fingernails overlap to form armour. Her work, she explains, is not really about herself but about some “other” character, a sort of superheroine.

The only reference she gives is Brooke Candy – the former back-up dancer and stylist who features in Grimes’s amazing Genesis video and has gone on to produce a breakout track, Opulence, that is shaking the globe. The song most clearly articulates Goodman’s fascination with desire and the tools we use to incite it. I particularly like the part where Brooke drums her fingernails on a glass table, waiting for the rest of us to get it.

Goodman’s work will be part of the group exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists at the Smithsonian in Washington. She has future solo exhibitions in New York and Brussels.

View the exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg until May 31 2014.

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