Iranian-born, Berlin-based sculptor Nairy Baghramian has taken over three of the Walker Art Center's pristine upper-level galleries for a retrospective that is a play on the idea of a retrospective.
Instead of going the typical straightforward, chronological route, using past work to show the linear progression of her Professional Career as an Artist, Baghramian's solo exhibition "Déformation Professionnelle" offers new sculptures based on original works she's made over the past two decades.
First shown two years ago at the SMAK museum in Belgium, the exhibit coincides with the installation of Baghramian's "Privileged Points" (2014) on the hillside outside the Walker. A curved rod of heavy steel that appears to be rubber, variations of this piece have been installed in Germany and Amsterdam.
Besides being a subversion of the museum's usual role in presenting a professional artist, the show also creates a twofold experience for Baghramian. By reflecting on past works, she produces more art, which means more work for her (production time, creative energy, configuring artist statements).
In previous exhibitions, such as her 2009 London show "Butcher, Barber, Angler & Others," the artist parodies the idea of work altogether. This is ironic in the best way, since much of Baghramian's artwork deals with questions about work.
Indeed, "What do you do?" is one of the first questions asked when meeting strangers at a party. It is also the most boring. A comedian friend of mine sometimes says that she is an accountant, just to avoid talking about her comedy work. In a recent conversation with someone new and cute, I was determined to find a way not to ask them about their job, or to talk about mine. But as I quickly learned, avoiding talking about work is work in and of itself. The ways that people's jobs shape their perception of the world is in fact one of the conceptual premises of "Déformation Professionnelle," a French phrase that loosely translates as "professional distortion" or "job conditioning," and refers to how people's views are skewed by what they do to make a living.
The actual artwork in this show is humorous, smart and tongue-in-cheek. It is also organized in awkward clusters, as if dropped in throughout the galleries, rather than arranged in the usual way of museums to maximize the space and ensure that visitors get their money's worth.
The 2016 piece "Treat (Marrowbone)" is a giant dog bone that's been severed in the middle, and placed near a corner, as if it were abandoned. It's a variation on the original "Treat" on view at the Frieze Sculpture Park in London, a single fully intact bone placed on the grass, waiting for Fido to fetch it. As always, Baghramian plays with materiality; while the piece looks like it is made of a durable, bone-like material, in fact it is made of wax and rather fragile. This use of nontraditional materials also references the Italian Arte Povera movement, aka "poor art."
In a corner of another gallery, next to a main set of stairs, a colorful cluster of misfit shapes hang out, occupying space like outcasts huddled together during a schooltime lunch hour. In one of the compound objects, a mint-green shape like a giant tooth fits in horizontally to a coy, roundish, deep blue joint.
Elsewhere, an elegant purple set of what could be legs upside down, with no body at all, just stands there. This is all part of "Stay Downers" (2017), which references students who don't move on to the next year and may be left out of class reunions, as well. This is a reflection on Baghramian's 2008 piece "Class Reunion," which presented rather upright forms that were all properly advancing to the next phase.
"Peeper" (2016) is a more purely space-oriented piece — a long rod with a loose rope at the end that stretches across the floor in a rounded loop. In an earlier incarnation of the work, "Spanner" (2008), the rope was strung taut from one wall to another. Now the piece has been reconfigured and recontextualized.
Certainly I could go on, talking in depth about each piece's reflexive, reflective nature. As a critic, I've already done my job, telling you about Baghramian's work — the show is great — and offering some analysis. So, what do you do?