• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

Milan: Nairy Baghramian

Nairy Baghramian: “Misfits”
Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milan

Installationview of NAIRY BAGHRAMIAN‘s Misfits B, 2021, varnished and cast aluminum, marbel (Statuario Altissimo), and walnet wood from Danh Vo’s McNamara project, dimensions variable, at Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milan, 2021. Photo by Nick Ash. Courtesy Fondazione Furla, Bologne.

An arresting photograph of a sulky little girl greeted visitors in the hall of Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in Milan for “Misfits,” Nairy Baghramian’s solo institutional debut in Italy. Shown in profile over an ultramarine background, the unruly-looking sitter overturns the studio-portrait ideal of the smiling child. Named after a training toy for children learning to read, Jumbled Alphabet (all works 2021) was emblematic of the exhibition, which centered on the experiences of error and frustration in childhood play as a positive and necessary step of growing up.

Over the last two decades, the Berlin-based Iranian artist has attracted international recognition for a practice that spans photography and drawing but mainly focuses on abstract sculpture and modernist form. The aesthetic, cultural, and ideological underpinnings of the places that her sculptures inhabit are a typical starting point for her projects, which often spotlight liminal spaces and alternative positions.

Consistent with Baghramian’s interest in site-specificity, “Misfits,” a collaborative project between GAM and Fondazione Furla, was inspired by the museum’s neoclassical architecture and grounds, an English-style garden with a playground, where adults are allowed only if chaperoned by a child. This restriction, curator Bruna Roccasalva explained, prompted the artist to reflect on the complications of the playground and on the limitations of play as an educational tool.

The show unfolded inside the museum and on its terrace, with five new sculptures conceived as a giant interlocking game, akin to children’s shape-sorting toys. Each sculpture, titled Misfits and lettered, consists of two distinct complementary parts. Varnished cast-aluminum open structures in the museum’s five adjoining rooms were designed to (mis)match cavities and indentations in five marble pieces installed on the adjacent terrace. Clear discrepancies, though, immediately stood out. This elaborate setting was meant to turn the feeling of frustration into a visual experience. In a more textured way, this point was made through the museum’s architectural barriers, latching onto Baghramian’s long-standing engagement with thresholds between art institutions and public space.

From inside the museum, the large sculptures outdoors, rendered in differently colored marbles, could only be observed through the windows, further curbing efforts to fit the two parts. Inside the museum, each room had its own mood. In one especially cozy space, a small black cylinder appeared near a larger, irregularly shaped white parallelepiped, decorated with a black crisscross pattern recalling Mondrian’s black-and-white geometric abstractions. Grounded with a wooden support as if sitting on a chair, this parallelepiped was anthropomorphized, and summoned the intimate feel of a parent reading to a child.

More varnished aluminum pieces were sprawled on the museum floor, like discarded toys in a playground. Their basic forms and spatial expansion invited the viewer’s kinesthetic involvement, nodding to minimalist work, yet overturning the movement’s literalism with a network of allusions. For example, the ambiguous morphology of a work comprising three similar cylindroids might recall fallen oversize jelly beans, or perhaps biomorphic forms, somewhere between vegetables and internal organs. Their candy colors— pale pink, gray, and ocher on white—echoed the hues of the room’s elaborate 19th-century decor, creating a harmonious environment. The work’s irregular surface has a markedly tactile appeal, revealing slight bumps and dents, and is sparsely dotted with small roundels in relief. Adding to an overall feeling of playfulness and imperfection, the rapid brushstrokes and smudges of the enamel appeared as if hastily splashed on by a child.

What above all made “Misfits” worthwhile was the way in which the core theme of the exhibition was woven into an aesthetic dialogue with the museum’s premises and with art history. Baghramian’s compelling and inventive visual language testifies to a sophisticated research that opens the boundaries of sculptural abstraction to stimulating reflections on wider social realities.