'I use elements from my culture, and colour is one of them, but I'm the only one to do so... I recently found that 'freedom' is a word that describes my work well. I think what characterizes my work is the freedom with which it combines different concepts, images, colours, abstraction and figuration, all within a very rational and geometric painting. My way of working uses freedom with order.'
(Beatriz Milhazes, quoted in Beatriz Milhazes, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Paris, 2009, p. 14).
Exhibited at the Venice Biennale Brazilian Pavilion in 2003, Beatriz Milhazes' O Elefante Azul is a celebration of vibrant colour and form; its dazzling gold floral motifs and baroque arabesques colliding with bold vertical bands of fuchsia and day-glow green in a carnival of rhythmic pattern. Crafted in 2002, the monumental canvas celebrates the sensory pleasures of colour without the restraint of formal narrative, with palimpsests of gold, violet, and green radiating through the beautifully worked magenta surface.
For Milhazes, this creative process of layering is as important as the aesthetics of the completed works. Since the beginning of her practice in the early 1990s, Milhazes has developed a unique artistic technique of painting intricate designs onto sheets of plastic and transposing them onto the canvas paint side down. The result is a vibrantly pigmented canvas, its smoothed surface devoid of the coarseness of brushstrokes. This monotype-like process also takes on a reductive quality as Milhazes peels back the plastic, transferring only a fragmented imprint to the canvas. The unpredictable nature of this process allows the artist to work spontaneously, evaluating the composition after each layer, allowing the elaborate designs to grow organically.
Describing her practice as 'composing painting-scores', Milhazes' O Elefante Azul offers a melodic reflection on the artist's life experience and Brazilian heritage, the vertical rhythm of paint articulating the musicality of her quotidian experience (P. Herkenhoff, Beatriz Milhazes, F. Alves (ed.), Rio de Janeiro, 2006, p. 173). Rich cultural references emerge from the vivid chromatic patterns: overlapping motifs of traditional chitão fabric, beads, peace signs, ripened fruits, flowers, capture a vision of modern day Brazil. These fragments of the everyday dissolve back into the colourful dissonance as quickly as they appear, evading their referential quality through the artist's intentional concealment and repetition of layered images. Similarly, the ambiguous title suggest a narrative, however eludes figurative representation. As the artist confirmed the title does not allude to anything other than 'the fruits of your imagination, time, state of mind. Of soul.' (B. Milhazes interview with C. von Schmidt (ed.), Artes, Venice, 14 June 2003).
Inspired by her early exposure to Matisse's cut-out collages in art history textbooks, Milhazes' layering quality adds an additional dimension and a degree of depth to the work, with complex imagery emerging from the superpositioned motifs. The tactility of the sumptuous gold filigree flowers introduces a sense of pictorial depth into Milhazes' canvas that hints at representation without ever defining it. Originally inspired by the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro which Milhazes' studio overlooks, a voracious still-life blooms across the horizontal canvas. The gilt finish would later evolve into collages of metallic confectionary wrappers pasted to canvas.
In O Elefante Azul, the appearance of uninhibited expression of colour reveals itself to be an orderly contemplated composition. Like the left and right hemispheres of a brain, the canvas is divided. The strong verticality of the colourful neon stripes are balanced by the fluid, blooming arabesques that dominate the right. The result is a dynamic union of geometric and lyrical design creating a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic effect. Recalling Brigit Riley's optical painting, the bold verticality of stripes take on a rhythmic quality; the intensely hued patterns pulsate with energy and life. The brilliantly coloured layers act as a metaphor for her hybridized paintings, blending modernist structure and ornamental decoration, traditional art historical references and modern day Brazilian culture. Milhazes offers a personal interpretation of her native Brazil through the lens of modernist art history.