“Beatriz Milhazes: Jardim Botânico,” Milhazes’ solo show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, is both a beautifully perfect title for the exhibit, and a misleading one as well.
The Brazilian painter has been popular for a couple of decades in Latin America and Europe, but this is her first U.S. museum survey, making it a bit of a coup for both PAMM and Miami. The more than 50 mostly large paintings simply burst from the walls in the several galleries they cover, with their outrageously bright colors and tropical flora imagery. It does feel like you are engulfed in a botanical garden, surrounded by shapes and hues that seem to have an organic life of their own and spiwll out from their canvases.
But these lovely paintings, with all their obvious decorative flourishes, start to become far more formal, less “wild,” when observing them closely, and especially as you move from early years to the most recent creations. The contrast becomes more intriguing as you dig deeper into Milhazes’ garden.
She is in fact intentionally playing with tension. She’s embracing her tropical environment — Jardim Botânico is the name of her neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro — and heritage, which includes the unique Brazilian cultural mix that has resulted in the exuberant carnival traditions and vibrant music.
But Milhazes is also schooled in the Modernist (and at times much more rigid and minimalist) trends that overtook European and Latin art during the 20th century. And then she plants textural, architectural and Pop culture elements into her yard, making her work more complex than what first meets the eye.
That’s why botanical is an essential part of the title: Her works are a framed study of detailed, specific bits and pieces that make up a micro-world, and not really an overflowing bouquet or untamed landscape.
The earlier works, made in the 1990s, start in the first room — where you can see the development of the mixture of abstract and literal detail colliding and taking on its own morphed form. Some of these can look like tapestries or jewelry — broaches and necklaces — with clear references to lace and ruffles and an almost Baroque-like imagery. One good example is Santo Antonio, Albuquerque from 1994; the pink, lavender and baby blue coloring is somewhat gentle, with a patterning that looks like doilies woven together with jeweled chains and interspersed with flowers and decorative knick-knacks.
It was at this time that Milhazes was inventing her own technique to make these paintings, which while feeling loose with their hyper-bright color schemes and elaborate interpretations, were actually precise in their composition. She didn’t leave the signs of brush-strokes behind after she applied a decal-like process to the creation of her works: She would paint on plastic sheets and then transfer the image to the canvas, layering them one on top of another, as though leaving layers of skin on the final product. That small touch, adding the collage element to all of her works, is what makes them less free-form and exploding than it seems from a distance. They are specimens, both natural and man-made.
Milhazes moved toward abstraction in the next decade, with circular and linear geometric designs becoming more prominent. Geometric abstraction has a long history in South America, so this too can feel part of an organic progression.
Flores e Arvores from 2012-2013 is an almost 3D culmination of all these influences, the huge painting truly leaping from a wall that seems trying to hold this kinetic, kaleidoscopic vision in. There are vertical and horizontal lines crossing over spheres and bubbles with more distinct motifs still popping through, in turquoise, yellow, pink, orange and purple coloring. These later works are more mural-like than confined to framed painting.
Like in any other garden, botanical and otherwise, there are surprising imperfections that also appear, marring in a good way. Milhazes suggests with these intentional markings that, mirroring nature, even the most gorgeous creations have flaws.
If there is a flaw in this exhibit, it is that even the lushest of gardens often need to be trimmed; at some point the number of psychedelic canvases sprouting from the galleries gets a little redundant. But Milhazes’ style and culturally influenced aesthetics are a fine fit for Miami, which is one reason why PAMM Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander picked her for this high profile solo outing. Milhazes combines references that reflect those of the multicultural New World, from Colonial Baroque to African rituals, from formal European artistic traditions to North American Pop culture. It’s a mix that Ostrander thought would resonate well in this cosmopolitan capital on the Caribbean rim, filled with people from points all over, and growing as an arts destination.
In fact, this is the first major in-house exhibit organized by the new museum and not brought in from elsewhere, which is a welcome trend. It will be the featured exhibit during Art Basel Miami Beach.
On your way in or out, don’t miss the new installation at PAMM on the ground floor, taking over from the Hew Locke piece comprised of dozens of colorful model boats and ships that helped inaugurate the museum. Hard to fill those shoes. But the monochromatic pieces from Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, so different in tone from both Locke and Milhazes, nonetheless tie into the vision of the museum.
Antunes based these minimalist sculptures made of dark wood, brown leather and brass chains, on Brazilian architecture both Modernist and Afro-Brazilian. The linear meshes, weaves and planks that come down from the ceiling form a subtle maze through which you can quietly maneuver. It becomes immediately clear what a nice dialogue this installation has with another art asset here — the superb architecture of the Herzog & de Meuron building itself. Without screaming, they both stand handsomely and inviting.
Appropriately enough, the installation is called “a secluded and pleasant land. In this land I wish to dwell.”