‘Nairy Baghramian: Retainer’ at SculptureCenter

The East Germans said they built their wall across Berlin to keep the capitalists out, but everyone knew the opposite was true. But a wall, in the realest and most concrete sense, must always face both ways. Berlin-based sculptor Nairy Baghramian’s site-specific installation Retainer consists of 17 separate elements arranged in a long curve that, aside from a generous aisle on either side, fills an imposing room comfortably. The curve’s convexity faces right, separating most of the space from the gallery’s door in the front right corner. Large, irregular, vaguely dental shapes in off-white colors ranging from milky yellow to muddy Caucasian pink, folded into bulging opaque ridges and thin, transparent valleys, are made of pigmented silicon squashed against smooth polycarbonate backings. Each piece is mounted, with several small chromed panels and one chromed grid, to three shiny, delicate legs.

Taken not as teeth but as easel-mounted paintings of teeth, facing inward for inspection, the pieces offer appealing slick surfaces and an idiosyncratically musical rhythm. From the convex side, read as fully formed sculptures pressing against the floor and meeting the viewer as she enters, they lose their transparency and complexity of form, offering in exchange the beauty of polished and precise engineering and an unexpected exposure of the inhuman nihilism at the heart of cosmetic dentistry.

But what it finally reveals itself to be is a total installation, a single, coherent response to the SculptureCenter’s slick, dark concrete floor, brick walls, double-height ceiling, skylights, network of struts and wall-mounted tracks for a massive crane mechanism hidden away in the mezzanine offices. Taken that way, the piece presses out in all directions, like braces against lips or brain against skull, making the tall brick walls look less like protection from the weather than like blinding confinement. (Through March 25, 2013)

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