“Usually, I think about surfaces. This is the first time I’m thinking in sculpture,” says Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, walking through her freshly opened exhibition “Marola” at New York’s James Cohan Gallery. The show debuts her newest body of paintings—markedly smaller than in previous outings—and, perhaps most notably, extends her trademark abstractions, punctuated with flora, into three-dimensional space.
Best known for oversized canvases saturated with baroque blossoms and graphic patterns, Milhazes earned a first major U.S. survey of her work, “Jardim Botânico,” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) during last year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach. But she is by no means new on the art world’s radar, having represented Brazil to great acclaim at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Since the early ’90s, Milhazes has worked in a manner somewhere between collage, printmaking, and painting. Each painting arises about through a multi-layered technique—hand-painted flowers, leaves, and line-work transferred, in turn, onto the surface of the canvas.
Milhazes was raised and schooled in Rio de Janeiro, and her aesthetic finds its origins—and continued inspiration—in the lush landscape of the beachside hometown where the artist still keeps her studio. While not overtly figurative, Milhazes’s paintings meld the influence of those carioca landscapes with that of abstract masters like Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko. It’s a stylistic amalgamation that arises from the artist’s background. The daughter of an art historian, she spent her youth immersed in the Western and Latin American canons, as well as in the work of Brazilian Modernists like architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
Developed over the past five years, Milhazes’s two sculptures that grace James Cohan’s gallery look like a three-dimensional extension of her painting practice. “I’ve done sets for my sister’s dance company and painted on buildings,” says Milhazes of several previous forays off of the canvas, which she places in the category of installation. These works—hanging forms evocative of monumental wind chimes—are definitively new territory. “Unlike painting, sculptures have a body,” says Milhazes. “They occupy and create space. As you walk around it, these relationships change. I wanted to create something that had an interactive quality.”
A mélange of mirrors, tinted Plexiglas, beaded strings, and paper flowers, the mobiles resound with a visual musicality that makes one naturally gravitate towards them. And, like the artist’s paintings, her three-dimensional forms are based partially on her drawing practice. “The sculptures began from the top, I drew a shape and that became the fixture from which these pieces grew,” says Milhazes, stroking one of the dangling beaded strands. “Like my paintings, I built them up one by one.”
Staring through the jungle of one of Milhazes sculptures offers a prime vantage point to view her latest paintings. Spaced generously throughout the gallery, the nine new canvases are an experiment in condensing the stretchers that typically dwarf the artist’s petite frame. “For the longest time, I wasn’t interested in small paintings, it’s not how I was thinking,” she admits. “Suddenly, I had this vision for smaller works—moments where I could create more intimacy.” Polka-dotted and striped, each piece represents a hectic but masterful harmony.
In the interior gallery, one finds Maracorola (2015), an ecstatic example of her signature large-scale paintings, where a wild landscape of interlocking geometries consumes an entire wall. The most figurative of the bunch, the work evokes the ocean—another reference to Milhazes’s hometown. However, “inspiration doesn’t have to be so direct,” says Milhazes, pointing to her Margueritola (2014). “Here, I was thinking about the trunk as a natural structure. Things evolved from there.”
In sharp contrast to the impending New York winter outside, the exhibition radiates vibrancy—an equatorial explosion that conquers the static nature of the white cube with a dynamic combination of textures and hues. True of all of Milhazes’s work, these paintings and sculptures welcome the viewer into a feverish jungle where expression finds a flamboyant synchronicity. “They all come from the same place,” smiles Milhazes. “It’s a limitless resource.”
Stefan Sagmeister: What is Happiness