"I am a conceptual carnivalesque," Beatriz Milhazes once explained with regard to her delectably colorful paintings, which riff on 'high' and 'low' with equal aplomb.(1) A mid-career artist who first broke through at the 1995 Carnegie International and later represented Brazil at the fiftieth Venice Biennale, 2003, Milhazes belongs to the generation of artists who invested painting with postmodern critique and new relevance in the 1980s. Her painting nods to historical sources in Matisse and the Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral, and yet like her contemporaries Philip Taaffe, Takashi Murakami and Julio Galán she insinuates conceptual connections between hyperfigurative pictorial elements and decorative abundance, linked organically through geometric patterns and radiating color. The complexity of color and its connotative reach is a hallmark of Milhazes's signature canvases, and her deft calibration of chromatic design marks works such as the present 578 with keen visual and art-historical intelligence.
"In the beginning," Milhazes has remarked of her work from the mid-1990s, "I felt a connection between Spanish Latin American and Brazilian, which is more Portuguese: the Baroque churches, the costumes, the ruffles, things that have volume or a sculptural shape."(2) Remnants of Catholic iconography filter through the present work, rendered allusively in the cloying emerald-green ruffle, profuse patterning of jewel-like ornaments, and delicately painted red and sky-blue lace trimmings. While such subtle (and notably, feminized) ecclesiastical referents recall past historical and geographical associations, Milhazes is nevertheless careful to emphasize the formal, compositional interests of her recuperated imagery. "I wanted to put them together based on a geometric composition," she has explained. "Because at the end of the day, I was only interested in structure and order."(3) The merging of charged, figurative motifs with the modernist language of geometric abstraction is here striking: Milhazes synthesizes baroque garb within a richly intellectualized pictorial environment, in which decorative details are reassembled into myriad serial and concentric circles.
Since the 1990s, Milhazes has built her paintings through a laborious process based on monotype and collage, in which many of the patterns are painted first on plastic sheets and then transposed onto the canvas. The layering of color and design elements is both a metaphor for her hybridized paintings, which blend modernist structure and ornamental decoration, and a means of elaborating a complex picture surface out of repetitive and superpositioned motifs. In this way, Milhazes's painting becomes a palimpsest of overlaid pigments and cascading imagery. The residue of her process can be seen in the few flecks of white and pale blue paint lost in the saturated red background of the present work, for instance, and in the tactile quality of its surface, in which the layering of color creates a dazzling, kaleidoscopic effect. The spiraling circles, alternately lace doilies or beaded coils, impart a coyly hypnotic quality to the painting: as the patterns spin outward and then retract across the canvas, they trace the progressive layers and manifold references of the image and its roiling critical depths.
1) B. Milhazes, quoted in C. Laudanno, "Beatriz Milhazes," Art Nexus 7, no. 68 (March-May 2008): 145.
2) Milhazes, quoted in C. Kino, "Modern motifs, with echoes of Brazil," The New York Times, 24 October 2008.