María Berrío’s Lush New Paintings Show Women Persevering Despite Disaster
Portrait of María Berrío by Bruce White, 2020. © Bruce White. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
María Berrío, Under a Cold Sun, 2020. © María Berrío. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
Before the pandemic, María Berrío was already prepared for a period of self-isolation; she had stocked up on food and materials at her studio readying herself to start a new body of work that was due to be shown at Victoria Miro, London, for the first time. Then COVID-19 happened. Like everyone, her world ground to a halt. “In New York, we were losing more than 800 people a day, and I couldn’t just pretend I could continue,” Berrío said.
Working from home during lockdown had a particular impact on Berrío’s work, as her son’s bedroom became her makeshift studio. Spending more time with him, surrounded by his toys, “helped me reach another phase in my work,” she told me. This setting affected not only the scale and level of detail in Berrío’s hitherto mural-esque works, but allowed her to connect deeper with the storytelling aspects of her art, as a form of healing and an act of transformation. In the same way she observed her child using fantasy to understand the crisis in his own terms, her own creativity helped her to deal with what was going on outside. “This exhibition began with the idea of a fictional town attempting to overcome a catastrophe, but it soon opened outwards into my own response to a very real, global catastrophe,” Berrío reflected. “The lines that distinguish art from life and life from art inevitably dissolved in its making.”
María Berrío, Miracles of Ordinary Light, 2020. © María Berrío. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
Berrío’s new works are finally seeing the light of day in a physical exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery II, “Flowered Songs and Broken Currents,” which runs through November 27th. Her spectacular, rich imagery is one of the most distinctive aspects of her figurative works, whether large-scale or small. The cyclical rhythms of nature provide the atmosphere for her intimate scenes, which explode with blossoming bougainvillea, pink roses, and abundant peonies—signs of spring and also of hope, which feel even more poignant now than when she began making them. Delicate, collaged layers of soft Japanese paper dyed with flowers and watercolor also allude to nature and its inexorable laws—one of the pervasive themes in Berrío’s new works.
One vast painting of a tree bursting with fruit, Miracles of Ordinary Light (2020), is an unusual work for Berrío in that it’s absent of figures. Regardless, it’s the beating heart of this exhibition, expressing parallels between the natural world and the experiences of the women in her paintings. The work forms a beautiful symbiosis with Clouded Infinity (2020), a monumental portrait of a seated woman depicted at “around four months pregnant,” Berrío said. That piece is inspired by her research into small fishing villages in her native Colombia. There, life has long been disrupted and destroyed by natural and political catastrophes, and yet “life continues—women have given birth in every kind of situation, they adapt and go on,” Berrío said. “Who we are is so close to nature—we are vessels, we are powerful creatures. That’s not to say men are not, but what a woman’s body and soul carries is very special, it represents a magical and unknown world. For me, painting women is such an honor.”
María Berrío, Clouded Infinity, 2020. © María Berrío. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
Berrío’s main focus is female figures, but she rarely paints real people or from life, preferring to work with characters of her own invention inspired by every kind of woman and their complexities. “I see my work as a novel, every painting is a different chapter, and every character has a different story,” she said. In these new works, Berrío wanted to recreate the feeling of a barren home, where the gaze of the woman and her pregnant belly fill it with life. This novelistic approach is also found in the work of her close friend Toyin Ojih Odutola, whose exhibition “A Countervailing Theory” was also due to open in London in Spring and has now been unveiled at the Barbican. Berrío often looks to the holy trinity of magical realism—Gabriel García Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges—and the visual qualities of their poems, blending reality and fantasy, memory and fiction.
This kind of juxtaposition between real and imagined is in fact closer to the way we live and perceive the world today. Berrío herself grew up on a farm in the countryside in Colombia, surrounded by animals and mountains, flora and fauna. Hers was a peaceful childhood in contrast to what was happening elsewhere in Colombia in the 1990s, one of the most dangerous eras in the country’s history. “Living far away has created a longing for where I come from, which appears in the work,” Berrío said. “It relates to my own trajectory, of being somewhere, coming from somewhere else, being away too long and having this illusion about where I’m from.”
María Berrío, The Quiet Undoing, 2020. © María Berrío. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
María Berrío, Ananda Tandava, 2020. © María Berrío. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.
Berrío has now lived in the United States for two decades. Next year, she will have her first solo show at an American institution, at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. As an immigrant living under Trump’s administration, politics are inevitably surfacing in her work. For instance, she has made work about La Bestia (also known as the “death train”), the freight train that carried immigrants from Central America across Mexico to the U.S., though often, the politics are more subtle—in her persistent female gaze, her inquiry into what female subjectivity looks like, and how we might understand the political through the personal, the emotional, and the spiritual. We see her figures in moments of solace, solitude, and contemplation—and Berrío invites us, the viewers, to enter that same space.
Berrío is one of only a few internationally successful female Latin American painters working today, but where she is from doesn’t define her work; rather, it’s her interest in the human experience. “People are always putting me in a Latina box, and that is who I am and it’s important,” Berrío said, “but artistic practice is universal.”