Baghramian has explored the relation of modeling, molding, and casting—interrelated elements of sculpture production involving positive and negative forms—throughout her career, and she consistently humanizes this largely mechanical process through overt or oblique references to the body. Using an abstract vocabulary that often combines geometric and organic forms, as well as industrial materials and processes with elements that appear soft and supple, Baghramian highlights the subtle ligatures uniting disparate human activities. In Formage de tête, presented in 2011 at the 54th Venice Biennial, she drew parallels between artistic, culinary, and bodily processes by draping tables with silicone sheets showing the voids of various shapes: such concavities, made by casting objects into the silicone sheet and removing them, could theoretically be used to cast those objects anew. The title literally translates to “forming of the head,” something a traditional sculptor might do, but it is also a pun on “fromage de tête,” or “head cheese,” a jelly made from the flesh of a calf’s or pig’s head by being set (or cast) in aspic, lending the silicone sheets an unexpected association. Typical of Baghramian, this touch of punning humor disarms even as it draws attention to the potentially unsettling connections between sculpture, cooking, and consumption.
Similarly, in the 2012 installation Retainer Baghramian erects a semi-circular phalanx of barriers in the gallery, partially surrounding the viewer—impeding movement through the space even as it offers a kind of embrace. As suggested by its title, Retainer’s amoeboid shields of cast silicone and polycarbonate, mounted on thin, polished aluminum supports recall the transparent plastic and wires of orthodontic apparatuses. Baghramian elaborates these motifs in the series Scruff of the Neck from 2016, with more overt evocations of dental forms. Likewise, her recent work, Knee and Elbow, commissioned for the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, in 2020, suggests a monument to parts of the body that bend and often fail: arches formed of large sections of pink and white marble connected with polished stainless-steel fittings like enormous bones sutured back together with medical-grade steel pins.
Knee and Elbow, 2020
Marble, cast stainless steel, Elbow: 61 ¹³⁄32 x 75 ¹?⁄32 x 27 ?⁄16 in. (156 x 192 x 70 cm); Knee: 61 ¹³⁄32 x 107 ¹5⁄32 x 27 ¹5⁄16 in. (156 x 273 x 71 cm)
Photo: Thomas Clark
Baghramian’s sculptures often rely on external supports, architecture, or each other for their stability; in doing so, they often suggest parallels with the body’s own interior architecture, such as the mouth and the skull. The Dwindlers comprise curved sections of cast glass held in place by rough, zincked-metal supports bolted to the gallery wall, encapsulating space in segmented runs through a room, even across doorways. The works suggest not only deteriorating ducts or chutes, but also intestinal passages or prostheses, lending the industrial associations a vulnerability not normally ascribed to them. This sense of support and care extends to the Maintainers, a series of multipart sculptures that lean on one another and incorporate external braces and clamps for stabilization. The materials Baghramian uses are related to one another through studio processes in which one type of substance is used to protect another: the wax of one large form, for example, could be applied to the raw cast aluminum object next to it. The work thus contains within it an existential dilemma: the destruction of one element (wax) to assure the continued health of the other (aluminum).
While much of Baghramian’s work involves a critical engagement with architecture and obdurately obstructing passages, certain sculptures register more subtly, although they antagonize and complicate prescribed art spaces and viewers’ expectations in equal measure. Such works fail to quite arrive at appearing as sculpture, instead teetering between identities and delivering a confounding set of visual cues. Peeper (2016), for example, comprises thick metal wire outfitted along its length with blue rubber washers and secured to an orange clamp anchored to the wall. When installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2017, Baghramian left one end of the long metal cord on the ground, flaccid and untethered from a second anchor on the adjacent wall, on the other side of a doorway, to which it should presumably have been fastened. This gave the impression that a barricade had been breached and the gallery unlawfully entered, creating an unsettling ambiguity for the viewer about Peeper's status as art and rendering the entrance into the gallery an experience of possible trespass, much as the sculpture’s title suggests.
Other works, most notably the series called Stay Downers, references a different realm of ineptitude, illicitness, or abjection. Though appearing formally resolved, these polyurethane and silicone forms’ German title Sitzengebliebene designates students who have been left back a grade in school. Individual works specify the exact nature of the problem, identifying with reductive labels those lowest on the adolescent social ladder: Nerd, Ugly Duckling, Malingerer, Babbler, Truant. The clusters of sculptures—thick, interlocking blobs or narrow, irregular oblongs in pastels and fleshy tones—are often installed in hard-to-reach corners or shyly along the wall, a cohort of the rejected. The somewhat organic forms of the Stay Downers further play with notions of social rejection by recalling cast-off or expelled products of the body, implicitly suggesting a connection to the efforts of artists.