Unfolding Layers of Sensuality in Mary Badalian’s Embroidered Canvases

by Varduhi Kirakosian


I pass by Mary’s artworks in the gallery, the second one in line, the third… and I can’t help letting my hand slowly and carefully graze the surface of one of the canvases. I feel every wrinkle on its skin. The sensation of the touch synced with vivid colors whisper about the different types of Mary: the one who impulsively scribbled the surface in the work “Night near Barbès,” or that Mary who very precisely stitched the equal, parallel, lines of “Spiral”. We can almost read the artist in her choice of colors and yet we are perplexed by the monochrome veils that cast a slight shadow upon her, serving as a private space she keeps for herself, a refuge from the public.

Varduhi Kirakosian in front of “Night near Barbés”. Photo by Milena Gevorgyan.
Night near Barbes, detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Spiral, detail. Photo by Harut Saroyan.

Mary’s mixed media heightens the senses. Her canvases unfold as a dialogue between the disorder of colors and the consensus of materials. Texture is an essential element of her work, created principally through her choice of thread and occasional beadwork. Curator Anna Gargarian describes Mary’s surfaces as “..fibrous and organic constructions that seduce through their obsessive and sensual tactility.”

Photo by Harut Saroyan.

Mary Badalian is an Armenian visual artist who lives and works in Yerevan. Mary’s interests, which she cultivated through internships at the Armenian Constitutional Court, Chamber of Advocates, and the United Nations in Armenia, encompass international relations, human rights, and ethical and integrity issues. Mary rediscovered her interest in art and creativity as self-expression while studying law at the Slavonic University of Armenia in 2018. She started her artistic practice as an experiment. 

“My grandma used to have a bunch of old threads left from Soviet textile factories,” Mary pointed out during a private interview. When her grandmother’s collection was handed down to her, this was both a discovery and an inspiration. Mary explained that she was seduced by the idea of reaching a more “intimate interaction” with the canvas by way of the needle: the resulting embroidery is scar-like, like wounds to the “skin”. Her process ends by concealing this interaction with multiple layers of monochrome paint. The artist’s decision to cover her physical encounter—and significant struggle—with materiality creates a calmer, uniform and almost emotionless picture.

From left to right: “Nonexistent character”, “Brain Tricks”, “Imposter Syndrome”. Photo by Harut Saroyan.
Brain Tricks, detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“First I see the initial picture of my work in mind,” says Mary. I see the colors, the lines, and shapes, and then I feel the urge to make it real.” Sometimes she makes a preliminary sketch of the forms and shapes with a marker on the canvas. The choice of threads is woven in her mind subconsciously, and it builds into a similar palette of very different materials and colors. But mostly, it’s unplanned, and it’s the process that interests her. Embroidery is close to Mary’s heart as a therapy. 

“I love doing repetitive and monotonous tasks sometimes,” Mary notes. It takes her several hours of silence and time alone to let her mind disconnect, and her hands begin to work calmly and almost automatically.

Mary during #StudioSaturdays, an art-in-progress happening at the gallery in the framework of the exhibit “Chromological Disorder”.

“Most pieces are free-hand. I don’t often premeditate how I’m going to stitch. That whole planning process might sometimes ruin the realness of the emotional flow that creates a powerful dynamic,” she tells me. 

What attracts her most in abstract art is how subjective and personal the interpretation is for every person. For Mary, the strongest works of art are those that influenced her emotionally. Now, as she makes her own artworks, she wants her audience to connect with her works emotionally on a personal level and be influenced by them each in their own way.

Mary also seeks to break down barriers between traditional and popular cultures by investigating and highlighting their connections and their differences. The time-consuming traditional stitch craft contradicts with our world of instant gratification and mass production. But Mary puts embroidery in a whole new context and grants it a chance to earn a wider space and meaning in contemporary fine art with all of its intricacy and sensuality.

Mary’s art is conflicting. It evokes questions like, “What’s the initial work of art?”, “Which is more intriguing?”, and “Why does she feel the need to hide her expressive composition?” As Gargarian puts it, “The care and attention with which she selects and juxtaposes her colors is as surprising as her consequent act of ‘erasing’ the color via multiple coats of paint.” Mary’s process is unique, and her phases of production are distinct and gradual, making it difficult to define when a work is complete. For Mary, the paint coats are a “logical ending”. 

“It makes it more cohesive and less messy,” she says. 

“Identity Crisis”, photo courtesy of the artist.

This conflict between contemporary minimalism versus the colorful mess of “folk” or “craft” art is best portrayed in her piece, “Identity Crisis”. This work uniquely shows the colorful embroidery on one side of the canvas and the monochrome paint on the other. This work touches on all the questions related to Mary’s practice and expressive voice. It begs the question: does expression need to be clean or is it all about letting the mess of your inner expression come forth as it is? Either way, I would argue that the real artwork is her process, and all of the emotions and questions it instigates in the viewer.

“Chromological Disorder” is on view at Dalan Art Gallery at 12 Abovyan street until July 30.