‘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’ (B. Milhazes, quoted in Beatriz Milhazes, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris, 2009, p. 14).
A kaleidoscopic painting extending nearly two metres in length, Romantico Americano is an exceptional, early work by Beatriz Milhazes from 1998. An opulent explosion of vibrant colour and form, elaborate motifs sweep across the striking expanse of coral; dazzling mandalas and baroque arabesques collide, while brilliant chartreuse starbursts radiate from disks of teal. Cascading rose buds over the top right quadrant create a lace like effect closely related to that of Succulent Eggplants, 1996, in the collection of the Musuem of Modern Art, New York. Originally inspired by the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro which Milhazes’ studio overlooks, a voracious still-life blooms across the monumental canvas. The resulting painting celebrates the sensory pleasures of colour without the restraint of formal narrative, with passages of rich verdant green radiating through the beautifully worked coral surface; the tactility of the sumptuous metallic surface introducing a sense of pictorial depth that hints at representation without ever defining it.
The uninhibited expression of colour and elaborate motifs of Romantico Americano echo the vibrancy of Milhazes’ Brazilian heritage. Nature’s circularities along with their elemental appeal, arise from Milhazes’ physical environment as well. Whether dynamic contrasts of colours in the vast array of bromeliads and water lilies or the blues and greens of the ocean, ‘nature always participates in my work as an atmosphere; it surrounds me; and I like to be surrounded by nature’ (B. Milhazes, ‘Beatriz Milhazes Interview,’ James Cohan Gallery, 2008, http://www.jamescohan.com/artists/beatriz-milhazes/, [accessed 25 May 2014]). Indeed, the notion of dialogue, interrelationships with nature, culture and art history is central to Milhazes’ work. Oscillating between figuration and abstraction, rich cultural references emerge from the vivid chromatic patterns: overlapping motifs of traditional chitõ fabrics and garlands, architectural ornamentation, beads, and flowers, capture a vision of modern day Brazil. As the artist has identified, ‘I am an abstract painter and I speak an international language, but my interest is in things and behaviors that can only be found in Brazil’ (B. Milhazes, quoted in A. Drucks, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: No Fear of Beauty’, in ArtMag, 2012, n.p.).
When she speaks about her ‘exchange with nature,’ it is in the same breath that she speaks about the source of her technique- collage. Having literally engaged with cutting out and pasting paper and fabrics on canvas, Milhazes moved to drawing on vinyl. 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. Describing her work as ‘very hand-made, the technique I use denies you the possibility to touch the hand signs of the painter. The organism of the construction of my paintings is subverted by the smooth and quite equal texture of it’ (B. Milhazes, ‘Interview with Beatriz Milhazes,’ in RES Art World/ World Art, no. 2, May 2008, p. 7). 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. This ‘dialogue with collage’ allows her to engage with her preferred medium- paint- but in a way that parallels the technique of printing. She prefers a relatively smooth facture, the absence of the trace of a brush stroke. ‘I like this more soft effect, the texture of plastic that becomes very soft, so the brush stroke is filtered by the texture of the plastic. This has helped me not only conceptually, but [also with] making my images really happen so that the whole developing of the painting happens’ (B. Milhazes, ‘Beatriz Milhazes Interview,’ James Cohan Gallery, 2008, http://www. jamescohan.com/artists/beatriz-milhazes/, [accessed 25 May 2014]).
A sumptuous and luxuriant beauty suffuses the canvas in an array of blues, reds, pinks and violets, a palette that is at once an essay on the vibrant combinatorial effects of mixed hues and a collage of cultural influences drawn from both European modernism and Latin American carnival. The beautifully worked surface celebrates the sensory pleasures of pattern recalling Gustav Klimt in its sensuous copper gilding. Beatriz Milhazes forges a stylistic link between historic and contemporary art practices, rigorously structuring a bravura panoply of indigenous natural artefacts into an explosive display of radical abstraction. The frisson of juxtapositions is enhanced by the rhythmic vitality of collaged elements- a tension enhanced by shifts in the scale of each image as well as the accumulations of layers, the juxtaposition of colours and the disposition of motifs laid over, under and adjacent to each other.
Milhazes regards Matisse as her ‘first and permanent reference’, having been inspired by her early exposure to Henri Matisse’s cut-out collages in art history textbooks. The layering quality in Milhazes’ adds an additional art historical context and additional degree of depth to the work. (B. Milhazes, quoted in, B. Schwabsky, ‘Beatriz Milhazes: From Painting to the Book’, in Parkett, no. 85, 2009, p. 146). Blending modernist structure and ornamental decoration, traditional art historical references and modern day Brazilian culture, in this way, Milhazes offers a personal interpretation of her native Brazil through the lens of modernist art history.