Beatriz Milhazes layers Brazilian exuberance over abstractionist rigor.
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The neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro where Beatriz Milhazes has her studio is called Jardim Botânico, after the 19th-century botanical garden it contains. That is also the title of the artist’s current exhibition at the Perez Art Museum of Miami (through January 18), the first major U.S. survey of her work. In fact, looking at the 50-odd paintings, prints, and collages on view, one feels as if one has entered a tropical garden, in which candy-colored (think fuschia, mango, deep purple), hallucinogenically bright flowers and plants grow in profusion, curling over flat, multicolored backgrounds. But as the curators of the show point out, a garden is an ordered space, and a botanical garden in particular is a place for rigorous classification and scientific study. Underlying Milhazes’ floral fantasias are modernist formalism, Latin American geometric abstraction, and a grounding in art history.
Milhazes was born in Rio in 1960. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was an art historian. Originally she wanted to be a journalist and got a degree in communications; she didn’t enroll in art school until her mother suggested that it would be a better outlet for her creative impulses. Milhazes studied at the Escola de Artes Visuais de Parque Lage, Rio’s best, where she was exposed to international modernism as well as Brazilian and other Latin American art. She has said that due to the limited holdings of Brazilian museums, she only knew European modern art through reproductions in books. Her favorite was Matisse—not surprising considering her work’s obvious debt to his cut-outs and sun-saturated palette. When she finally saw his work in the flesh, in Paris in 1985, it was “a turning point” for her, she said in a recent interview, crystallizing her intuition that it modernism didn’t have to be austere, that one could be serious while still embracing decorative values and sensuous colors.
Other early influences included Kandinsky, who allowed pure colored forms to float in an undimensioned space, and Sonia Delaunay, whose colorful overlapping circles are echoed in many a Milhazes composition. The straight-edged color blocks of Mondrian’s geometric abstraction are also clearly visible in the backgrounds of Milhazes’ works. Among Brazilian artists, her major influences were Tarsila do Amaral, who rendered her typically Brazilian rural subjects in a tropical palette with surreal touches, and Oswald de Andrade, a painter-pamphleteer whose 1928 Cannibal Manifesto argued that the strength of Brazilian culture lay in its penchant for cannibalizing other cultures, digesting their diverse flavors and making them its own.
That is what Milhazes has been doing in her art for the past three decades. While she has quipped, apropos of the prominence of the PAMM show, that “it took me 25 years to become an overnight sensation,” actually she has been quite well known outside the U.S. for a long time. In 2003 she represented her country at the Venice Biennale. Europeans are apparently fine with something that makes some Brazilians uncomfortable—her use of stereotypically Brazilian references in her paintings. Milhazes’ work is basically abstract, but it has many figurative elements or abstract elements that allude to figuration, and many of these are derived more or less directly from elements of popular Brazilian culture. Milhazes cites samba and bossa nova music as major influences, and imagery from Rio’s yearly Carnaval, with its colorful extravagances, dancing, and music, pervade her work. To some Brazilians, all of this is kitsch, but to Milhazes it is a kind of lifeline. “What I’ve realized,” she told an interviewer this fall, “is that my work doesn’t need Rio; I need Rio. I need to be in my city to make these works.”
If you look closely at the often circular abstract forms at the center of her paintings and prints, you will notice not only references to flowers and leaves but lacework, embroidery, ceramics, and Baroque architectural ornaments—all of which can be seen on a walk down a Rio street. An early work, Viagem ao Centro da Terra (Journey to the Center of the Earth), from 1993, alludes to colonial Brazilian art in the vertical eye-like shape at the center, which looks like a Baroque representation of the Virgin Mary surrounded by golden rays. A much later apotheosis of Brazilian culture, Carmen Miranda, is also paid homage in a Milhazes painting. The flowers, fruits, hoops, and beads in Mariposa (Moth), from 2004, recall the over-the-top costumes that the singer made world-famous with her “tropical” stage act in the 1930s and ’40s.
Milhazes calls Miranda a major influence, and in fact music in general is extremely important to her. Another painting in the PAMM show, O Selvagem (The Wild), from 1999 is filled with zigzagging lines and psychedelic, kaleidoscopic shapes that evoke the 1960s Brazilian pop-musical movement Tropicalia, in which Gaetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil blended Afro-Brazilian elements into American-style rock. Milhazes is also a huge opera buff, and opera’s lush theatricality can also be felt in her paintings. Her sister Marcia Milhazes is a dancer and choreographer, and Beatriz has designed sets for her productions. Not one to limit herself to any one medium, she has also created an artist’s book, Coisa Linda (Something Beautiful).
The layering of cultures, influences, and styles in Milhazes’ work has its physical counterpart in the technique by which she makes them. After applying acrylic paint to make the background, she paints her intricate circular designs on sheet of mylar and then glues them on to the canvas. When she peels off these “decals,” a reversed image is left behind. In this way, she has found a way to paint as if she were making a collage. In her printmaking practice, the analogue is screen-printing.
With the Miami show, Milhazes is coming to the attention of American art enthusiasts and collectors. Due to its vibrant Latin American community, the city is absolutely the right place for the artist’s U.S. retrospective. In fact, with its mix of cultures, climate, and tropical look, Miami is, for Milhazes and her work, a perfect “jardim botânico” away from home.