The vocabularies of traditional sculpture have had a hard time of it since the demise of Minimalism. “Sculpture” has come to be synonymous with collaged, modified and reconstructed found objects, with their more direct access to reference and signification. Nairy Baghramian’s new series of sculptures, titled “Formage de tête,” questions what role traditional sculptural methodologies might still have. Several purpose-built table structures (all work 2011) had as their tops colored silicon mats indented by various cast objects. The silicon—ranging in color and texture from glossy cream to matte gray-blue—was rough and uneven, falling away in gelatinous strips.
On the gallery wall, a list of the cast objects was printed on a small Formica plaque: “Molded metal, wood, sheets of glass, rubber, cardboard, colored Plexiglas, foil, foam, wire, neon lights,” etc. The plaque (titled Formage de tête [Étiquette]) resembled an art institutional wall label, and its litany had a Minimalist ring to it. But Minimalism was all about what was in the space being the sum of our experience, and this was a summary of what had been and gone. It doubled as a pseudo-menu for the “delicacies” that had left their impressions on the tabletops. The rectangles and circles gouged out of the silicon aggressively parodied the typical forms of abstract “modern art.” Sculptural process, fleshing out the relatively bodiless opticality of pictorial abstraction, was gently mocked, cast as a cue for sensuous culinary relish. It is as though “sculpture”—in its original guise of casting and modeling—could only be acknowledged and embraced through an ironic lens.
Formage de tête (Capot seul) and Formage de tête (Capot double) reinforced the point. Bespoke enlargements of cooking dishes—the platter and covering lid used to keep food warm in cafeterias—were hooked to upright metal poles. A fine skin of hardened silicon spilled out, as though the dishes had been left unwashed after use. Compared to the table sculptures these were stage props, theatrical signs for a gesture that had already taken place, not only on the silicon tabletops but in the generality of traditional sculptural process. They named the culinary metaphor that the table works enacted. This was an about-face, a familiar conceptualist interpretation of a materialistic process, confirming the age-old binary between mind (conceptualism) and body (material/process). It is a dichotomy that the table works fuse and dispose of.
In the two dish works, Baghramian backtracks into a language of signs that is endemic to the standard contemporary installation of collaged found objects, a mode that her tables supersede or at least point a way beyond. Perhaps the dishes are a sign that she does not have the courage of her convictions. Seen in the most positive light, they show an artist stating her intent. Symbolically, the odds and ends cast in silicon are the only found objects that featured in the show, and they were absent, leaving only negative traces and the words which name them. Baghramian memorializes the original charge of the Duchampian found object, and tentatively offers a sculptural replacement for the clichés that it has come to represent.
Photo: View of Nairy Baghramian’s exhibition “Formage de tête,” 2011; at Daniel Buchholz.