Milan

Nairy Baghramian, Misfits B, 2021, varnish and cast aluminum, dimen­sions variable. Installation view. From the series “Misfits,” 2021–.

Nairy Baghramian, Misfits B, 2021, varnish and cast aluminum, dimen­sions variable. Installation view. From the series “Misfits,” 2021–.

Nairy Baghramian

GALLERIA D'ARTE MODERNA | FONDAZIONE FURLA

The luxurious Neoclassical Villa Reale in Milan, which is home to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), boasts the oldest English garden in the city. It is open to adults only if they’re accompanying children under twelve, which makes the GAM, whose art collection focuses on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, something of a tease: On the ground floor, its nearly floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a terrace that beckons you to a lush and secluded garden with a pond, wooden bridges, and a small playground, essentially inaccessible to most visitors. The duality of playfulness and frustration engendered by this setting informed Iranian-born German artist Nairy Baghramian’s first institutional show in Italy. Titled “Misfits,” the exhibition took over five ground-floor rooms and worked its way outside onto the terrace, pairing each large-scale indoor sculpture with a seemingly even larger-scale outdoor counterpart. At the entrance to the exhibition, a large photograph, Jumbled Alphabet (all works 2021), presented the defiant face of a blonde child, whose frown, together with her messy hair, oversize sweater, and fuchsia face paint, pointed to her rebellious and determined nature—contrary to the traditional image of docile and orderly children.

Baghramian has spoken of giving sculpture “the chance to not fulfill expectations.” “Misfits” suggested she wants to teach this to kids as well. Primed from a young age to put building blocks together so that they fit perfectly, children are taught that fitting in and perfection are to be aspired to, while being a misfit is not. Baghramian’s sculptures, from this perspective, personified misfits: Each indoor piece had a corresponding “other half” outdoors, but the two objects did not match. Her message of nonconformity could feel a little heavy-handed and dated, especially for anyone aware of widely lauded alternative educational approaches, such as the Montessori or Reggio Emilia methods, both of which originated in Italy. The strength of the show lay in the works themselves, which were arresting in their unusual forms. They seemed at once to flawlessly fit in and jar with the opulent setting of the GAM. The interior of the villa, which once belonged to Napoleon, was a frequent source of distraction, with its elaborate stuccos, lavish chandeliers, and intricate mosaic floors. For an artwork to hold its own here is a significant challenge, yet one that Baghramian harnessed to her advantage. Often working with the color schemes of the rooms—shades of blue, orange, green, black—her soft-edged sculptures conjured up some lingering memory of characters populating our childhood, as we teetered between recognition and confusion as to what they might be.

The interior works were mostly of painted cast aluminum, while the exterior pieces were of marble (and in one case granite), marking Baghramian’s first time working with the material. Misfits F, sited on the terrace, was a wonky arch carved from light-green Costa Smeralda granite, while its identically titled indoor counterpart was made up of a cluster of smaller, limb-like sculptures painted in whites and pale yellows that harmonized with the colors of the walls and floor. In the adjoining room was Misfits B, comprised of three cylindrical shapes likewise lying haphazardly on the floor. Their smooth surfaces were painted in brushstrokes of pink, yellow, and orange. The work’s outdoor component was a circle with carved indents, resting on the ground, made from Statuario Altissimo marble. It shimmered playfully in the summer sun.

Marble has historically been associated with nobility and harmony, but Baghramian joins a dissident modern tradition of artists who use it to make “less than perfect” sculptures. What was unique here was that the marble sculptures—the most compelling works in the show—belonged to the domain of childhood; adults observing them only from indoors missed out on their imperfect and mesmerizing beauty. Baghramian’s mise-en-scène, placing young people—often perceived as unwelcome visitors to a museum—center stage, exhorted us to value and recognize that inadequacy, nonconformity, and even failure are crucial to the formation of our selves.