“I am a conceptual carnivalesque,” Milhazes once observed with regard to her delectably colorful paintings, which riff on ‘high’ and ‘low’ with equal aplomb (B. Milhazes, quoted in Claudia Laudanno, “Beatriz Milhazes,” Art Nexus 7, no. 68, March-May 2008, p. 145). Based in Rio de Janeiro, she continues to engage the material and conceptual complexity of geometric abstraction, plying its baroque sensibilities and optical pleasures with keen, decorative intelligence. A sophisticated colorist, she has drawn perceptively from an acknowledged range of historical sources, from Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian to Bridget Riley and Tarsila do Amaral. Milhazes first broke through at the 1995 Carnegie International and later represented Brazil at the fiftieth Venice Biennale (2003), and she belongs to a generational cohort of artists—among them, Philip Taaffe, Takashi Murakami, Fred Tomaselli, and Julio Galán—known for postmodern interventions within abstraction. Her paintings and installations insinuate a hybrid visuality, in which stylized pictorial elements gleaned from Brazil’s vernacular tradition—folk and colonial art and architecture, tropical flora and fauna—infiltrate, and suggestively subvert, modernist geometries.
Drawing on techniques of monotype and collage, Milhazes developed a time-consuming, painterly (or “printerly”) process in the 1990s in which patterns are applied first on plastic sheets and then transposed onto the canvas. A palimpsest of time, the built-up painting surface becomes a record of accretions and abrasions, interleaving residual referents (flowers, lace, beads) within a kaleidoscopic register of colors and textures. The layering of color and design elements is both a metaphor for her stylistically hybrid paintings and a means of elaborating a complex picture surface out of repetitive and superpositioned motifs. “Milhazes presents us with images that shun purity and are instead redolent of lived experience—of mutability, contamination, instability, and precariousness,” Tanya Barson has remarked. “They show us an image of life as an ongoing, unremitting duration—as a perceptual process of renewal and decay” (T. Barson, “Painting Mutability,” Parkett 85, September 2009, pp. 124-25).
Meditations on temporality wend through the psychedelic structure of O Egoísta, carried by the repeated motif of the Nautilus shell, whose expanding spiral shape has long been associated with the ideal proportions of the Golden Ratio and its graceful aesthetics. The geometry of the Nautilus has guided works by Leonardo da Vinci, Mondrian, Le Corbusier and Georgia O'Keeffe, among others, and yet here Milhazes embraces the shape as pattern rather than proportion, enfolding it within a free-spirited decorative program. “The layering is what creates the dialogue between symbolism and materiality,” Milhazes explains, noting, “The external references I often use to develop my compositions are submitted to the rules of painting” (B. Milhazes, quoted in “Chromatic Joy: Beatriz Milhazes in Conversation with Tanya Barson,” Beatriz Milhazes: Jardim Botânico, Miami, 2014, p. 26). A red-and-pink heart beats at the center of the sun at the top of the painting, casting pink and sea-green rays onto the crush of overlaid pigments and cascading imagery below. The pastiche of forms creates a dazzling, kaleidoscopic effect, passing from the concentric strands of beads through the outlines of a flower; the overall impression is one of ornamental abundance and euphoric self-abandonment to pure color and decorative rhythm. “Embracing life and joy in a complex form that addresses freedom is a very serious and political statement,” Milhazes understands. “I feel connected to it.”
—Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park