Armed with a tight-knit team of artistic visionaries, Andrea Horan and Sinead Rice are setting elitist rulebooks ablaze.
The first time I heard Andrea Horan speak was at a creative conference in Smock Alley some years back. Striding onto the stage in a leopard-print, sequin-covered concoction (you’ll find no wallflower frocks in this woman’s wardrobe) her presence was nothing short of electric, zapping each audience tier into sharp focus. Thirty seconds into her speech, I had shedloads of proof that her resplendent nail bar, Tropical Popical, was a complete carbon copy of her brain; a flamingo-festooned colour bomb, teeming with palm trees and endless servings of craic. As she traced her personal and professional timeline with colourful flair, Horan’s entrepreneurial approach struck a chord: why is bigger always better? Why open 10 sub-standard premises when you can seamlessly run one?
“There’s nothing like [Tropical Popical] in Ireland – a sense of community provided with a nail salon. There had been no sociability around it before… We never wanted to be a chain of nail bars whacking out products. Because I wasn’t hemmed in by [those demands], I could focus on how we could be most creative, developing projects that could pull off all my interests in the one place.”
While TropPop’s South William Street perch continued to soar in popularity, Horan’s business didn’t expand in square meterage: instead, she confidently charged into pro-choice activism. The Hunreal Issues was conceived in 2016, a Repeal-centric space that unjumbled political jargon, and on the first birthday of Repeal’s resounding success she created United Ireland – a woker-than-woke podcast – alongside Una Mullally. Around the same time as Hunreal’s emergence, Sinead Rice was harnessing her new role as Head of Education at the National Gallery of Ireland, then on the cusp of re-launching its historic wings after years of renovation. “To get the position at that time was incredibly exciting! So little of the gallery had stayed open [during the refurbishment], and suddenly everything was changing, opening up… we had so much space to work with.” With considerable public interest drummed up, the re-launch of NGI’s major temporary exhibitions “represented an unbelievable opportunity to overhaul what we do – use this civic platform to showcase our accessible, inclusive educational programming.”
One such showcase was Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, primed to debut two days after the gallery re-launched in June 2017. Footfall was set to skyrocket, so the Education team held a roundtable talk (their standard practice before every show) to spitball ideas. How could they make these 17th century paintings – acclaimed, but often quiet, domestic scenes – appear more accessible to a diverse audience? During this brainstorming session, the suggestion of working with Tropical Popical was suddenly put forward, so Rice swiftly looked them up, liked what she saw, and wasted no time to get in touch. Calling the collaboration “Dutch Gold and Details”, Tropical Popical’s brightest and bravest descended upon the gallery space, soaked up the exhibition during a secret walk-through, and headed back to base camp to break down the works. Their artistic responses stretched from “really flamboyant nails that would take a while to create,” Rice recalls, “and others that could be more speedily re-produced, whether in Tropical Popical or – during a couple of events – the gallery itself.”
Unsurprisingly, the project was a phenomenal success, bringing effervescence to a (sometimes) heavyweight subject, and both parties benefitted. “We had people coming to the gallery that wouldn’t normally come to us, and Tropical Popical had a new audience that were looking to get this nail art done. I was so impressed by the level of work, commitment and fantastic attitude – both with the public and with ourselves – that the TropPop team had displayed throughout.”
Months after their work together wrapped, Rice was asked her thoughts on a potential creative partner for the NGI, and Horan’s fabulous nail artists flooded her mind once more. She couldn’t imagine a more streamlined fit, so they began crafting a year-long partnership, throughout which Tropical Popical would create fresh work in response to new exhibitions. “There was such integrity to the art they were making. The gallery wanted to bring the nail bar into a series of Thursday Lates (a monthly evening event within the NGI) which was great, but I also felt that it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, just feel like a ‘lip service’ – something we were doing just to be cool. We wanted to create something that would showcase their talents as well.”
From that promising thought, Renailssance was spawned: a multi-media showcase currently staged in the gallery’s Millenium Wing Studio. Both Horan and Rice hail from art-loving, elitism-loathing mindsets, so their decision to co-curate, Horan passionately states, was a no-brainer. “Why should there be snobbery? Just because someone’s more affiliated with the brushstrokes on an artwork, or have studied it for 20 years, doesn’t mean they have any more reason to appreciate it than I do. We have to be cognisant of the fact that art is for everyone – the whole point of art is to join communities and societies together, not establish a hierarchy.”
The exhibition propels nail artistry to unprecedented heights: never before has this medium been showcased in a national institution, anywhere in the world. “We never wanted just to stick some nails in a room,” Horan continues. “We wanted to celebrate overlooked art forms, fashion included, and turn the tables on how art is usually presented in a gallery format.” Stepping into the high-ceiling space where Renailssance reigns, there’s a considerable amount – but never too much – for the eye to catch. Plaster casts of Horan’s hands project from palm-printed wallpaper, displaying the impeccable nail art devised for each show. These talons are bona-fide canvases, albeit a little smaller (and less linen-y) than the ones we’re used to seeing. Stripped back “product shots” of each look are captured by Therese Rafter, holding court on a nearby wall. “Minimalism isn’t really me,” Horan laughs, “but this lets the nails speak for themselves.”
The historic tropes of a gallery exhibition, like large-scale oeuvres in gilded-gold frames, are given a tongue-in-cheek update: instead of oil paintings, five fashion-editorial photographs hang proudly on the walls, framed with baroque splendour. Each shot corresponds to a different, detailed nail response, which in turn traces back to a former exhibition piece – from an iconic Caravaggio to a once-overlooked embroidery cushion.
“We wanted to drive home how these historical artworks, many of which are over 200 years old, can be a really rich source of inspiration for contemporary creative practise,” Rice affirms. Five of Ireland’s most innovative designers feature in this segment: Richard Malone, Simone Rocha, Colin Horgan, Aideen Gaynor and recent NCAD grad Izzy O’Reilly. One image sees Appiok Tong sport Malone and talons inspired by a Countess Markievicz portrait. Another finds Tong reclining in a sequinned number by Rocha, her skyscraper claws responding to Joe Caslin.
Dublin’s sartorial dream-team was the driving force here, with shots by Eilish McCormick, styling by Aisling Farinella, set-design by Ciara O’Donovan (who extended her vibrant touch to the whole exhibition space) and dazzling make-up by Sarah Lanagan.
The show’s ‘hero piece’ – an arrestingly-large artwork that takes centre-stage – features an incredible, inflated dress by O’Reilly, with nails influenced by Mainie Jellett’s Under the Big Top at a Circus. “In the run-up,” says Rice, “we never gave away what the hero image was. Myself and Andrea felt that if you’d just graduated, just had your degree show, coming in [to the showcase] not knowing your work was the hero image would be an amazing surprise. The fact Izzy’s dress was latex, and that it could inflate and billow out, really drew from the concept of the circus tent; it tied the whole thing together.”
There is not one demographic that Renailssance doesn’t cater to, and its opening night is sheer testament to this. The showcase marked the first time the NGI launched an exhibition alongside the general public, symbolising a strong desire to make art museums free of archaic intimidation or snobbish fuss. Dedicated, guided tours brought attendees to the Gallery Collections that inspired Renailssance, putting each work into perfect context, before taking them back to the exhibition (rest assured, this is a recurring part of the exhibition programme). “There were so many people on the tour that by the time the first group and the guide were back down in the Studio,” remembers Rice, “the two stairs were still full of people! I hauled Andrea out of the Studio because she just had to see this, it was a magic moment for us.” Fashion-industry figures, nail-art newcomers and prominent museum heads intermingled with gusto, opening up an exciting new chapter for cross-collaboration. “Too often, nail art is put into a certain box – ‘that nail thing’ – while nail art lovers might equally assume the gallery isn’t for them. The purpose of the show was very much to challenge those pre-conceptions. Ultimately, it all comes back to the fact that these contemporary works started with a painting from the 1600s, for example; something that has suffered war, famine, floods… it has defied time, and outlived so many lives. Now, thanks to this phenomenal team of women, it has found new life.”
Renailssance is running until September 12, with a special Jill & Gill sweater (reinvisaging Countess Marcievicz) for sale in the NGI Shop throughout its showcase. Pencil Friday, August 30 into your calendars: Richard Malone will converse with Aisling Farinella within the gallery surrounds, preceded by an after-hours tour of Renailssance and the National Collections that inspired it.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady