Walking into Nairy Baghramian’s eighteen part sculpture, Class Reunion, at the Contemporary Art Gallery is a surreal experience – it’s as if you have stumbled upon a conference between a bizarre cast of abstracted characters from a Tanguy painting. Baghramian was born in Iran but has lived and worked in Berlin for almost 30 years. This is her first exhibition in North America and it’s a testament to the CAG’s diversified exhibition programming that Vancouver is host to this artist who has exhibited extensively in Europe but is less well-known locally. In Class Reunion, Baghramian evokes the language of modernism with her abstracted sculptures which are alternately angular and sensual, animal and inanimate. Their elongated, delicate limbs flaunt their materiality and objecthood. Eerily anthropomorphic, many of the forms consist of spindly poles which support a heavier mass reading as a face or head. The artist has done a masterful job of negotiating shapes which verge on recognition then veer away from it, actively playing with the human compulsion to classify then denouncing it. Baghramian’s enigmatic work causes us to question our understanding of just what it is we are experiencing. All while raising issues around social and political relationships and the framing of contemporary art.
Class Reunion is fashioned from cast rubber, painted metal and coloured epoxy resin in a mostly neutral palette of black, white and grey with an amusing exception in a colour best described as flamingo pink. Some of the pieces appear almost utilitarian, mimicking a light fixture, a coat rack, perhaps the top rail of a chair which prompts puzzlement as to what it is you are looking at and, ultimately, the question of what constitutes design versus art. The verticality of the sculptures – the fact that they are standing up – creates an intense personification, a feeling confirmed by the title of the work itself and the individual names of the pieces such as Stiff, Dandy and Mr. Hunger that impute character and personality to these gangly and peculiarly elegant figures. The characters come to life in the space with their physicality producing traits that are difficult to ignore — height coupled with an outward curve suggests a dominant flamboyance while a downward sloping arc implies submissiveness.
The majority of the sculptures hold court precariously, huddled together in a loose group which barely allows for the passage of a person. Their positioning suggests a conversation between individuals or togetherness, the idea of the “class” invoked by the title. And while the pieces are singular in their physical form, they share a common materiality that unites them. Still, some of the figures are different – Tomcat is cast in a corner (a punishment, perhaps, or an outsider?), Spider I and Elégance Noire lean up against walls (suggesting weakness?) and Slacker I lies on the ground (has it given up hope?). It’s astonishing that using this abstracted and unusual language Baghramian is able to so poignantly evoke questions around social inclusion and exclusion. One’s reading of the work slips quickly from a consideration of materiality and classification to more substantive thoughts of meaning and context.