Nairy Baghramian's Class Reunion is full of life

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Nairy Baghramian: Class Reunion
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until November 11

If you mated an IKEA floor lamp with a biomorphic abstraction by the surrealist Jean Arp, and muddled in a little DNA from a Sol LeWitt sculpture, a plastic-flamingo lawn ornament, and a work of absurdist theatre, you might produce a family of artworks something like Nairy Baghramian’s Class Reunion. You might.

Baghramian, who was born in Isfahan, Iran, and has been based in Berlin for nearly three decades, has shown her work throughout Europe and the U.K. to considerable interest and acclaim. Her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, described in the accompanying brochure as “an eighteen piece sculpture comprising a variety of abstract forms”, is her first in North America. The different components, most of which are grouped in the CAG’s B.C. Binning Gallery, share a number of formal and material qualities. More importantly, they are united by an intentional anthropomorphism, the sense that they are social (or antisocial) beings. Given their high-concept art-world location, they could be a small, uncertain crowd at an exhibition opening, waiting for the curator to arrive and make sense of what’s on view: themselves.

Each of these forms, executed in painted metal, cast rubber, and epoxy resin, combines different degrees of the matte and the shiny, the organic and the geometric, the elegant and the awkward. Baghramian’s palette is understated: the forms are mostly black and/or white, with occasional incursions of navy blue or beige—and a single humorous line of flamingo pink. Many of these works stand upright and consist of an abstract “head” atop a slender pole or long tapering leg, the leg then ending in some kind of flat or layered base or tripodal arrangement of “limbs”. And each abstract sculpture is individually titled—for instance, Slacker, Mr. Hunger, Knucklehead Hither, and Knucklehead Thither—to further suggest human qualities.

Not one of these forms is shaped like a human head or figure, however; in fact, there is more direct resemblance to animals, plants, musical instruments, and furniture than to people. And yet likeness here is clearly evoked, by an angle, a gesture, an implied attitude.

Dandy is a monochrome black structure whose jutting “head”, bereft of facial features, is strangely suggestive of a couple of Edward Gorey’s fantastical creations: the obnoxious, penguinlike being in The Doubtful Guest, and the recurring, eyeless oddity that Gorey called “Figbash”. Still, such likeness seems less about direct influence and more about the place where historic surrealism has lodged in the contemporary imagination.

What has also lodged in Baghramian’s imagination, it seems, is interior design, industrial design, and product branding. The white head of Jump on Bandwagons, for instance, is reminiscent of a Nike swoosh. In Handrail and Elbow, there persists the suggestion of trendy modernist chair backs and light fixtures mashed up against medical devices like walkers and crutches. As we wander among these many forms, we contemplate the play of social relationship, the nuances of art-world politics, and also what the exhibition brochure calls “current issues of materiality, manufacture and display”. We become aware of the ways our lives are, in some sense, enacted by the objects with which we surround ourselves, of how we weirdly invest our identities in material goods. These inanimate objects—these mere things—assume an existence that sadly echoes our own. Floor Lamps ’R’ Us.

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