If quality equals the amount of time spent thinking about an artwork, then Nairy Baghramian’s RETAINER has got to be pretty good. Now occupying the SculptureCenter, a row of polycarbonate slabs– what looks like giant, phlegmy braces– are ratcheted together from behind with a scaffolding of metal struts. Without looking too hard, one might write this off as another piece in the plexi-and-hardware trend that so often feels like filler.
From behind, the semi-circle becomes a retainer for the room, bracing the empty space. Suddenly no longer focused on the illusion of teeth, one imagines whatever it’s pushing up against. The room? The space of art? The art?
The gesture boils down a familiar art device, recalling Donald Judd’s desire to move past the “container” of the painting or sculpture and engage in space, or the Pictures Generation’s concept of imagery as a funnel for a larger system. In this case, Baghramian’s retainer seems to negate its own role as an art by flatly deflecting the focus back onto the room.
As a result, I have no strong feelings about the piece. But to leave it there misses the question that I think Baghramian’s trying to ask: what is art supposed to hold for us? It almost comes down to asking “what should a person care about?” Whether I like it or not, Baghramian’s not telling.