In French, modèle vivant refers to the practice of drawing, painting, or sculpting the human figure from a live model; that is, from a person who strikes, assumes, holds a given pose in service to an artist’s act of composition. The title of Nairy Baghramian’s current exhibition thus not only names her new body of work but also summons a conventional history of studio procedure that often seemed to subsume or to sublimate bodies, depending on one’s point of view. Then again, Baghramian’s sculptures affirm that points of view can change, sometimes must change – sometimes repeatedly. In the most literal terms, the specific location from which a viewer views any sculpture shifts as the person moves their own body around or in relation to the artwork. More metaphorically, too, the works in Modèle Vivant ask what a sculptural body might be, and might mean, even when no body is explicitly figured.
Baghramian invokes the long tradition of figural sculpture (of the statue, even) in part through art-historical representation. She first made these works – and deployed this exhibition title – for display late last year at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas, where they lived among a discontinuous but cogent selection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures from the museum’s storehouses. At kurimanzutto, Baghramian now interweaves her dozen abstract sculptures with nearly as many figural works by two twentieth-century artists resident in Mexico, Geles Cabrera (b. 1926) and Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012). Cabrera’s and Catlett’s sculpted bodies here are: recumbent, enfolded, upright, propped, fragmented, skeletally articulated. Baghramian’s sculptures are similarly disposed, many appearing to recline, sit, stand. She seems in fact to solicit our habits of anthropocentric projection, perhaps also our desires for the easement of recognition, and she does this as well (once again) through language.
Vivant (“living”) insists, grammatically, on a kind of continuous or persistent present. Baghramian has likewise named each individual sculpture in grammatical parallel with her exhibition title. Further, she designates each sculpture by a reflexive verb, a form that certifies the equivalence of subject and object – reflecting an action back upon its actor. To behave oneself. To apply oneself. To enjoy oneself. Reflexivity makes ready sense in many of Baghramian’s titles – S’éloignant (“Withdrawing [oneself from a space]”) or S’allongeant (“Reclining” [laying oneself down]), for instance. Meanwhile, the shared title of her four S’accrochant (“Dangling”) sculptures does slightly more work. The suspension of its hefty shapes from prominent hooks conjures an abattoir, which in turn suggests the chilling passivity of body parts hung up by someone else. To which the reflexive verb counters: these sculptures are not hung up so much as they are hanging on.