NYC-based sculpture artist Juan Alvear was recently on the phone with his mom when she relayed a surreal story. She was eating dinner at a chain restaurant near her home in Colorado, and complimented the waitress on her nails. The waitress thanked her, explaining that she was in beauty school with hopes of being able to do nails professionally. His mom told her how her son also does nails, except his are of a more sculptural nature. The waitress pulled out her phone, opened Instagram, and searched for an account. “You should show your son this Instagram account,” she said. The account was Nail By Juan, the account Alvear uses to document his otherworldly, next-level freaky nails.
Alvear’s nails are an extension of his sculptural art practice — surreal, kind of grotesque, and always mesmerizing. His nails bulldoze through the boundaries of nail art, taking a left-of-left-field approach to the traditionally polished medium with spiraling silhouettes, spiny branches, alien charms and everything in between. A quick google search of “World’s Longest Nails” feels closer to Alvear’s work than your typical trend-focused nail art account.
Mystery plays a big role in Alvear’s nails. He’s reluctant to disclose the materials behind his nails, and is open to Facetuning his work from time to time to if it means elevating the drama and enigma surrounding it. He’s drawn to the internet phenomenon of “cursed images,” employing many of the same tropes in his documentation, like the use of an iPhone, the ubiquity of a plain, white wall as a background. “I like having these images feel really familiar yet fucked up. I love cursed images, I love the mystery behind them,” he tells me as we sit and chat in the backyard of a Nolita bakery on a mild night in early October.
Towards the end of his junior year at Cooper Union, where he graduated in May, he took one of the earrings he had made in school and placed it on his nail bed; from there, he created three more, took a photo, and posted it to his account. It’s been roughly two years since Alvear fused his sculptural art practice with his affinity for nails, and his playfully polarizing creations are only beginning. His goals could seem far-fetched to a non-believer, like creating nails for an eccentric Met Gala attendee, working with the likes of Rihanna or Erykah Badu. But Alvear’s nails make viewers question being in a fever dream, and that kind of warp in reality can make anything possible.
Tell me about your art practice.
I just graduated from Cooper Union, where I did painting, sculpture, and a lot of drawing. A lot of [the art I made] is surreal, colorful, slightly landscape-esque. A lot of figurative, colorful things. My sculptures in the past have dealt with accessory and decoration. I’ve made ceramic cowboy boots. I was making a lot of wearable sculptural pieces, like pins, earrings, and things like that.
I can see where the nails fit into that.
Totally. There’s the wearable and the nails-as-the-wearable thing. I think the pins are more like object and commodity, whereas the nails allude to commodity, but they’re kind of hard to commodify because it’s not super functional. They’re very heavy. They’re good for a shoot, to add something crazy to something.
I can definitely see them being used for an event where the person themselves is kind of on display.
I would love to do more events — the Met Gala, or something like that. Just really go crazy with someone who is known for going crazy.
So you’re going to do Rihanna’s nails?
Yes! [Laughs] I would love to. Going forward, I’d really like to open up my painting and sculptural practice to be even closer to my nails. I have a lot of plans for large paintings, but maybe even more related to the nails. I really like the idea of making portraits of each nail — like a floating nail on a landscape. In a way, they’re not nails, they’re just on the nail-bed.
How did your nail obsession begin?
I’ve always been collecting nail polish. Since I was thirteen, I started collecting nail polish because I loved the colors and the idea of adding it to drawings and paintings for the iridescent shine — the glitter, or the really glossy red finish. It was kind of like a laquer you’d use on a train set. I was a Boy Scout, and I’d carve out little cars and paint them with nail polish. I just really liked the colors, and how it was this thin but sturdy, glossy material.
I’d also paint my sister’s nails on occasion. I’d never take it super seriously — it was more jokey, just painting my nails messily. I’d be at the mall with some friends and we’d go into Forever 21, they’d have the spinning thing of nail polish and I’d quickly paint their nails with every single color. It quickly became this thing that I did a lot but never really thought much about. I’d buy nail polish whenever it was on clearance. I thought I’d make a painting with it, but I never did because the bottles barely have anything in them. I would always use it as little accents. If I made a person, the whites of their eyes would have a clear coat of glitter.
Was there something about nail polish that normal paints didn’t have?
I liked how quick it’d dry — the glitter, the high shine. It’s self-flattening, which is cool. I think I always had a taste for that. Also, being gay, there was this sort of desire, a feminine thing. I probably had some deep-rooted, subconscious affinity toward with my mom and sister getting their nails done.
How did you shift into sculptural nails?
When I was at Cooper, I had a bunch of nail polish with me that I’d keep in my art bin and use on occasion, mostly for drawings. I’d make a drawing on paper, go in with a glitter color, and fill in the drawing in my sketchbook. One day I brought my nail polishes to school, thinking, “Now is the day I’m going to do a big painting with nail polish.” A few friends saw I brought all this nail polish and they wanted their nails painted, so I painted their nails, and eventually I started this Instagram account called Nails By Juan in an effort to socialize and make more friends — to break down some sort of social wall or barrier between people at school I started painting people’s nails in exchange for one nail polish color, painting these badly painted nails on Instagram. That was for fun, it was kind of a joke.
Around the same time, I was doing the wearable pins and earrings, and one day I put what was going to be an earring of a face on my nail. I thought it looked cute. I made three more. The first photo only has four nails, the thumb is hiding. I wasn’t really thinking about it! I posted it on Instagram and people thought it was really cool, so I posted it on Nails By Juan. Something clicked in that moment, and I thought, “I like it a lot.” It happened very naturally.
It feels like a very natural meshing of what you were doing.
I was playing around with this idea of wearable art — queering through a wearable thing, or making sculptures that could represent something that was abstract and in my head. It quickly meshed. Although, in school, I never really showed my nails in critique.
Do you wish you had?
I think it’s fine that I didn’t. There’s this thing about the nails that I like that I feel really free doing it. I don't have to stress out in the same way I used to about my paintings and sculptures in class, because when you show them to the class you’re like “I feel really good about this painting,” and the class like tears it down. With the nails, due to not having that same form of critique, it’s something I can still feel like I’m having fun with and not overthink, and that’s been affecting my personal paintings and drawings. It’s serious, but it’s something I have a lot of fun doing.
What are some aspects of it that you enjoy?
I discover different things about it that I like — a performative aspect depending on who wears it, how they act while having them on. I like that there’s a social interaction that happens when working with people on photoshoots and on models and friends. There’s a social component you don’t often get in art or creative practice, because you’re painting in your studio or sculpting alone. I feel like I get both worlds of being in my room and working on these nails, and meeting people and putting them on them. It’s instantly gratifying.
I really like the polarizing reaction I get when I show people photos of your nails. Is that something you enjoy?
Oh, definitely. I love that. Especially with the internet, who knows who’s going to see your page? I’ve noticed a lot of polarizing viewpoints. It tests people’s expectations of what something should be, or is, or what is beautiful, what is interesting or cool.
What materials do you use? What are you drawn to?
I like people not knowing what I use — the idea of of mystery. If you tell too much, it becomes too real, whereas when you see something online and you’re unsure, it mystifies it. I like when people come across the nails and are confused about it, or have a suspicion that it might be something, but they’re not 100% sure. If people are suspicious about something, that creates interest, and I like that.
Nails by Juan is very dependent on Instagram for its existence. Does that relationship weigh on you in any way?
I was recently getting anxiety about Instagram — like, Maybe I should post this, people like that thing, maybe my caption should be a certain way, maybe I shouldn’t edit photos. Just getting in my head — like when I photoshopped my nails onto Kylie Jenner, thinking Maybe I should post that. That feeling ended up pushing me in the opposite direction. If I’m feeling that way, I should just do it. I don’t want to have this feeling in me where it has to be in the same process or same genre of thing. I want it to be an area I can be playful, instead of a source of stress. There’s something liberating about posting something you’re unsure about and just letting it happen.
Do you pay attention to nail trends and ways to subvert them within your practice?
I definitely keep up with the trends by following all these nail accounts. When I started Nails By Juan, even though it was a joke account, I typed in "nails" and followed everyone — almost a play into the seriousness of the account. I now follow ones that I think are funny and relevant, just to know what’s happening.
I have a folder called “Nail Remakes” where I save a lot of existing nail prints or ideas. Someone has a little fishbowl on their finger, and I make a mental note that I want to do that, but really big. I also have a lot of shoes saved. I like doing a nail based off of a shoe. That chunky shoe trend, I’m really into that — I think there’s a way to reference it. There’s a trend on YouTube of using 100 layers of nail polish, and I want to do something in relationship to that. Maybe 100 layers on a really weird nail, or 1,000 layers.
Do you ever think you’re going to create a more wearable version of your nails, or do you think they’ll always be sculptural?
I see the nails as being sculptural. I want to make a nail polish that would be for cool color schemes and glitters I might want to have. I'd hope it would be something people gravitate toward in the way I do. The signature is that they’re sculptural. I made some nail charms recently that could be something that could be sold, but the sculptural aspect is functioning as a signature. I do want to have them be more accessible. Recently I’ve been making 15-20 nails for each set, just so it can fit more people when I go to set. That makes me feel like someone could buy a set of 20 and someone could wear them.
When I make nails, I always make them for the job. I never bring an existing set. I always make what I think would work for each shoot, and I only make one set of each one. I don’t want it to be a thing that’s too accessible, because I think it loses something in that. It’s something I consider part of my art form, and as soon as it becomes too commercialized it loses something. I think that about a lot of art. It gains something, but it feels less personal. I like the idea of the human hand being involved in each one.