Nairy Baghramian’s Still Lifes and Dead Models

Paired with sculptures from the Nasher’s permanent collection, the artist’s new work explores the vulnerability of the body

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BY Jia Jia Huang in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 20 DEC 22

Hanging from the vaulted-glass ceiling of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, long S-hooks extend down several metres, nearly to the floor. Metal rods shoot out of their shanks like branches, dangling large slabs of both smooth and textured aluminum. With these enigmatic sculptures, artist Nairy Baghramian continues her exploration of power and the body, expanding her visual vocabulary in unexpected ways.

Three sculptures, two in the foreground, one in the next room in the background; a dangling assemblage sculpture, then a vaguely figurative rough-hewn sculpture, then a seated female nude with arms bent overhead
Nairy Baghramian, ‘Modèle vivant’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, kurimanzutto, Marian Goodman Gallery and Nasher Sculpture Center; photograph: Kevin Todora

Marking the occasion of the awarding of the 2022 Nasher Prize to Baghramian (an Iranian artist now based in Berlin), ‘Modèle vivant’ presents her latest body of work in conversation with pieces from the Nasher’s permanent collection that evoke largely female figures and, as the exhibition title suggests, live models. Henri Matisse’s bronze sculpture Large Seated Nude (1922–29), for example, depicts a woman frozen in a strenuous pose. With her core engaged, she balances on a plinth while leaning backwards with her arms raised behind her head, her weight shifted off her feet.

Hanging nearby, the two geometric aluminum plates of Baghramian’s abstract S’accrochant (rouille)/Dangling (rust) (2022) mimic the parallel lines formed by the limbs of Matisse’s work. Accentuating a vertical tension that is less legible in the 20th-century artist’s representational sculpture, Baghramian highlights the effort exerted by artist’s models, those often unsung and unnamed muses. She also speaks to larger social issues that are inseparable from the art world: Who is propped up by the minimized labour of another?

Install view of four sculptures; the third is a bronze Isamu Noguchi, the other three hang from the ceiling and are trapezoidal assemblages of metals, prints, and what appears to be raw rock
Nairy Baghramian, ‘Modèle vivant’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, kurimanzutto, Marian Goodman Gallery and Nasher Sculpture Center; photograph: Kevin Todora

Here, the body is not simply vulnerable, but wholly fragmented – a stark visual contrast with the impervious durability connoted by Baghramian’s metal material. In S’accorochant (crépuscule)/Dangling (dusk) (2022), a large wedge of smooth aluminium, raised so its centre is roughly eye level, is paired with two much smaller hunks of coarse aluminium, resembling a disjointed torso with stubby legs. Baghramian’s sculptures in ‘Modèle vivant’ are monochromatic except for the coloured C-prints – depicting clusters of flies on unidentified animal skins – that are adhered to the polished-metal slices of each of her dangling sculptures, and the steel hooks from which they’re suspended, which are covered with congealing paint. These details can’t help but conjure the image of animal carcasses hanging in a butcher’s shop. Although a translation of the exhibition title might be ‘living model’, Baghramian in fact summons to mind the dead model – a reminder that the subjects behind many, if not all, of the artworks on view no longer walk among us.

A metal sculpture upon a thin base with parts interlocking and splicing into a main plane
Isamu Noguchi, Gregory (Effigy), 1945 (cast 1969), bronze, 175.9 × 41 × 41.6 cm. Courtesy: Nasher Sculpture Center

The image of the traumatized body is evoked again by the exchange between Baghramian’s work and Isamu Noguchi’s Gregory (Effigy) (1945, cast 1969). In Noguchi’s sculpture, an oblong plane of bronze is punctured and sliced by six hooks, three of which act as supporting ‘limbs’ that connect with the ground. This interlocking work was created after World War II, during which Noguchi was voluntarily incarcerated in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Conceived during a period of disillusionment, Gregory (Effigy) speaks to the isolation that Noguchi experienced in the face of racist political agendas, but also of the mundane cruelty of capitalism. It borrows its name from the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. Though he briefly questions this cataclysmic event, Samsa is soon consumed by the banal: worries about his ability to perform his job and provide for his family.

Two sculptures, portrait orientation: one of a fractured female face; one a dangling sculpture with metal and raw rock
Nairy Baghramian, ‘Modèle vivant’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, kurimanzutto, Marian Goodman Gallery and Nasher Sculpture Center; photograph: Kevin Todora

Not dissimilarly, Baghramian’s new work arrives in the wake of COVID-19, another catastrophic world event, which has laid bare the prioritization of revenue and profits over human lives. It was, after all, the most vulnerable who were annointed ‘essential workers’ for keeping grocery stores and restaurants open during quarantine, earning the minimum wage and without guaranteed healthcare. In ‘Modèle vivant’, Baghramian fills the galleries with overburdened bodies – a reminder that none of us are as invulnerable as we may believe.

Nairy Baghramian: Modèle vivant’ is on at Nasher Sculpture Center until 8 January 2023.

Main image: Nairy Baghramian, ‘Modèle vivant’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, kurimanzutto, Marian Goodman Gallery and Nasher Sculpture Center; photograph: Kevin Todora

Jia Jia Huang is an arts writer and critic based between San Francisco and New York. 

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