Maria Berrio in her studio. Image courtesy of Praxis Gallery, New York.
Maria Berrio’s muses are almost exclusively women. In fact, the only time she incorporated a man (her husband) into one of her intricate collages, she “transformed him into a tiger before the piece was done,” she confesses, laughing. Berrio has nothing against men, but she’s more interested in visualizing powerful women and the myths that surround them. In a new group of canvases, the Bogotá-born, Brooklyn-based artist swathes Amazonian queens, veiled matriarchs, and earth mothers in elaborate patterns, crowns of flowers, small birds, and big—but ultimately obliging—cats.
A towering female figure with a hulking jaguar casually draped over her shoulders emerges in Born Again (2015), the central piece of Berrio’s show, “The Harmony of the Spheres,” up now at Praxis Gallery in Chelsea. This heroine is anointed with a headdress made from blossoms and a dress that appears to be woven from the surrounding vegetation. Three children, one with an immense halo, throng her, and she offers a tiny songbird in one extended hand. The central figure, Berrio explains, is one of the many “strong women capable of living in the jungle, capable of showing their beauty, and connected to nature, to the animal world, to everything.”
Berrio’s muses are inspired in large part by South American folklore and mythology, in which women—like Colombia’s MadreMonte (mother mountain, or mother of the forest)—hold sway over the lands that surround them. Approaching the works, one comes to realize that each blade of grass or swatch of fur has been rendered from tiny paper cut-outs, pieced seamlessly together. Berrio’s medium of choice is Japanese rice paper. Hundreds of rolls, in all patterns and colors, are gathered together in buckets, scattered around her studio. The paper is so thin that when it’s applied to canvas with glue, each individual bit blends with whatever is next to it. The impression is of a tapestry woven so tightly that edges align without revealing so much as a stitch. And as fragments of pattern come together, to form a leaf or a collar, Berrio’s human muses coalesce and become one with their natural surroundings.
Installation view "The Harmony of Spheres" at Praxis Gallery, New York, 2015. Image courtesy of Praxis Gallery, New York.
Berrio grew up in Bogotá, Colombia in the 1980s and ’90s, during the reign of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. The oppressive environment, for a young Berrio, provoked dreams of the lush natural world that lay beyond her family’s home. “I was mostly caged; I wasn’t often allowed to go out,” she explains. “So for me, Colombia was a dream of all these paradises I couldn't touch.” Like for Rousseau, a painter whose work Berrio visits regularly at the Met, the jungle came to represent a lost paradise. At her parents’ farm outside the city, though, she got a taste of the comfort that nature could offer. There, she escaped into a veritable ark of animals—cows, rabbits, birds, and a whopping 10 St. Bernards. She also forged an unlikely bond with a parrot, which had become her grandfather’s best friend, following the untimely death of her grandmother many years before.
Animals show up everywhere in Berrio’s work. They are symbols of strength (in the case of the jaguar), companions and protectors to her muses, or direct extensions of the women themselves. Across a trio of large canvases, grouped together as “The Lovers,” three women hold animals that blend into their very being. One clutches a parrot, her hand emerging from deep within its coat of feathers; another seems to be a part-woman, part-flamingo, the bird’s feathers indistinguishable from the woman’s arms and shoulders. Here, animals represent more than a lost intimacy with nature—they become stand-ins for unseen aspects of each subject’s identity.
In The Procession (2015), the central figure cradles not an animal, but a tiny, doll-like woman, perhaps a physical manifestation of the girl’s psyche. In many ways, this piece is the most autobiographical in the show. We see a girl in a dark corridor, butterflies floating beyond the barred windows. But even so, she is surrounded by animals—her amulets—and supported by a strong cohort of women—perhaps visions of future selves. It may be a self portrait, but it’s also a meditation on identity—a pursuit that applies to women and men alike.
“The Harmony of the Spheres” is on view at Praxis, New York, Sep. 10 – Nov. 7, 2015.