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Beautifying labor, celebrating craft: Vivienne Le’s ‘Five Sisters’

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Against the white wall of the exhibition room of Root Division (1131 Mission St., San Francisco) stands an installation of vibrantly colored sculptures. This is the cardboard and plaster work of Vivienne Le ’20, and one of the 12 works chosen among nearly 200 applications for “Introductions 2019,” a juried exhibition that opened on Sept. 12. The annual exhibition seeks to showcase the talent of emerging artists in the Bay Area. 

Le’s sculptures take inspiration from the occupation of her mother, a nail technician in Southern California. The shapes of the pieces are inspired by the nail shapes customers can request from nail technicians. The sculptures’ vibrant colors are created by automotive paint, a precursor for nail polish.

The nail technician is a common, if not clichéd, occupation for Vietnamese female immigrants in the United States. Introduced by actress Tippi Hedren to a group of Vietnamese women in a refugee camp, the nail industry has become dominated by Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese immigrants. The industry’s estimated worth of $8 billion, and its ubiquity in the beauty service landscape — especially in Southern California — do little to elevate the status of the nail technicians. 

The stereotypical “nail lady” speaks broken English, smiles and nods at everything, waits hand and foot on customers. Yet a generation of Vietnamese Americans has grown up from their mothers’ (and aunts’ and sisters’) nail salons, from an American dream that smells like acetone fumes and is tainted with nail polish. The work of the nail technician and her treatment in the American consciousness evokes the age-long debate surrounding the supposed division between arts and craft (with the latter often associated with hard manual labor, especially that done by women). 

Le tackles and challenges this binary head-on, as she paints the nail-inspired sculptures with vibrant primary colors. The artist said she intended for the primary colors to be a way of putting back beauty into the dreariness of labor and the diaspora. Her very process of creating the pieces, however, reflects the difficulty of labor. I listened in awe as she explained how each piece originated from cardboard tubes. Over this base, she poured plaster in layers, each of which she meticulously buffed by hand.

One would not recognize the manual labor that Le has put into her work from afar, easily mistaking the material of the sculptures as painted metal sheets. During my time at the exhibition, I saw multiple people read the label next to the installation only to do a double take at the pieces as they realized they were made from cardboard and plaster. Le noted that she enjoyed seeing how craft could approach the perfection of automated products — as she put it, “Can my hand measure up to an industrial hand?” 

Is this how we — as consumers of craftworks — judge the value of crafts, by comparing their products to those of automated, industrialized process? Or is this a reflection of the dissociation of the nail technicians from their humanity, as onlookers and consumers have done with those who perform housekeeping, construction work and a myriad of low-income, invisible, dirty jobs that immigrants take up in order to support their families?

The black nail (“Chip”) is laid parallel to the floor, a decision that Le said was to break up the composition of the installation. Fittingly, the nail shape that the particular piece represents is called the coffin. Its horizontal position allows one to see its backside, exposing the uneven surface of plaster, the fading smudge of black paint that was not thick enough to obtain the deceptive shine of the front. This is where one could really appreciate the labor that Le puts into her artistic work — and the diasporic labor she aims to portray. With her permission, I lifted the nail/coffin. It was surprisingly light, and the reflective surface and the black color gave me a weird dissonance, as if I was lifting up a car with one hand. 

All the nail pieces in the installation are named after her sisters and scaled to their height. When the artist stood next to them — in her vibrant clothes that she seemed to have an affinity for — the work fully lives up to its name of the “Five Sisters.” Somebody asked Le about her thoughts of the pieces being separated — inevitably but hopefully, as they are purchased by art enthusiasts. Le has in fact sold the blue nail (“Megan”) to a buyer, dedicating the profit to her next project.

The pieces are arranged in the shape of a claw and forms a harmonious combination by themselves, yet their reflective finish invites the audience to come closer and examine their surface. Upon close inspection, the reflective surface of the nails is imperfect, distorted by the glitter incorporated in the paint and the unevenness of the underlying plaster that could not be completely buffed away by hand. The play with reflections reminds me of Jeff Koons’ infamous balloon animal sculptures. The reflections in the mirror-finish stainless steel of Koons’ works, while disfigured by the contortions of the sculptures, gives a clear reflection of the world, asserting a sense of subjective, almost oppressive, universality about the world that they reflect. Le’s sculptures, meanwhile, employs a distorted reflection on the basis of material, calling to mind the specific experience the artist seeks to reproduce — a distortion of reality caused by being part of the diaspora. 

The audience’s gaze into the reflective surface of the nail sculptures is met with warping reflections of themselves, an image of the frailty and uncertainty of the diasporic experience, fraught with labor, exploitation and discrimination. As I stood next to the sculptures, I felt invited by the provocative title “Five Sisters,” which contradicts the literal number of pieces presented, to see myself as part of the installation, and as part of the experience it is trying to represent.

Le’s work does not seek to represent a universal truth about the Vietnamese diaspora, but its ability to speak to and take inspiration from the specifics, as well as the artist’s willingness to express her vulnerabilities in her work, encourages the audience to look at the installation and draw from its personal truth their own conclusion about — and connection to — the diaspora, the power of labor, the politics of beauty and what constitutes art.

“Introductions 2019” is still on show at Root Division until 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28.

Contact Khuyen Le at khuyenle ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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