PRINT May 1996


ON MORE THAN ONE OCCASION, I’ve heard the work of Beatriz Milhazes, a young painter from Rio de Janeiro, characterized by the annoying snap judgment, “Interesting Frida Kahlo meets Philip Taaffe.” This assessment rankles, of course, because of the Kahlo connection. It’s as though, despite the enormous cultural and historical distance that separates Mexico half a century ago from contemporary Brazil, any woman painter from anywhere south of Texas must have emerged from the same current. What’s more, the equation of Milhazes and Kahlo elides the readily apparent stylistic differences between the latter, a self-mythologizing diarist, and the former, a discreetly Matissean sensualist so disengaged from self-reference that she cloaks even the traces of her own painterly gesture.

The Taaffe comparison is a bit more on target. Not just because of a common interest in decorative pattern, but because of a certain approach to surface that is fundamental to both artists. Each painter comes at the canvas indirectly—in a way that could be called “printerly,” and is also related to collage. Milhazes does not paint directly onto the canvas; she works first on smooth glass or plastic surfaces, from which, as they dry, the resulting sheets of paint are peeled, then affixed to the painting proper. In this way, Milhazes creates a dense accumulation of raw integuments that somehow retain the feeling of having been abraded. Applied “one skin over another,” these layers, as Brazilian critic Paulo Herkenhoff writes, foster a sense of “anonymous contact within a compressed multitude.” The copiousness and elegance of Milhazes’ compositions should not distract us from the irritable hypersensitivity of these flayed membranes and raw nerve endings, which commingle in extravagant proximity.

When I look at the paintings this closely, observing the way they speak of what Argentine novelist Ernesto Sabato has called “those places where the skin of the self is extremely thin and delicate and abnormally sensitive,” I am forced to admit that my friends who saw a connection with Kahlo were not necessarily as off the mark as I originally thought. There’s a view of flayed skin to which they’re both drawn—for all the difference between Kahlo’s representation of it and Milhazes’ material analogy—which suggests a psychological reinscription of the primarily sacral imagery of Latin American Baroque painting, and of the forms it has assumed in the continent’s popular religious culture.

With its compensatory commutation of suffering into ecstasy, the emotional extremity of this devotional iconography reflects a traditionally female form of piety. This fact ties in neatly with the fascination with feminine finery—lace and embroidery, ruffles and ribbons—that both Kahlo and Milhazes share. Decorative trifles hang heavy in Milhazes’ paintings as though laden with knowledge passed down through centuries of women’s glory and suffering—from ancient armoires to contemporary bargain racks, from art to kitsch. Milhazes’ omnipresent flowers, thanks to the way they play against and into the insistent “flatness” of ornamental patterning, also exemplify this microscopic engrossment in the trappings of femininity. As far as one can be sure of such things, they seem to represent not real blossoms but ones of silk or plastic, or perhaps those often found in naive painting. All this is not without its grave humor: in Paz e Amor (Peace and love, 1995–96), we discover an evocation of “flower power” kitsch whose hilarity does not, however, disguise the fundamental sadness of a palette dominated by grayish blues, suggesting shop-window posters whose red inks have been bleached out after years of exposure to sunlight.

The flower is an important image in these paintings in another way as well: as the most specific reference to the organic, it serves to remind us that everything else is artifice, but it also suggests that this artifice exists only to refer to nature. From this perspective, all those garlands and flourishes start to take on a distinctly biomorphic quality, as though the opening and closing of this multitude of artificial yet unpredictable and naturalistically irregular forms referred to nothing but the growth and decay of cells or plants. Suddenly the paintings are as close in spirit to Terry Winters as to Taaffe or Kahlo.

So while the material rawness of Milhazes’ painting does after all evoke a visceral quality that to some extent justifies comparison of her work with Kahlo’s, I still want to insist that we’ll get nowhere with Milhazes’ work by locating it merely in a Latin American or even in a specifically Brazilian artistic context. Her paintings are as far from the old stereotypes of expressionist figuration with a folkloric twist as they are from what is beginning to be recognized as a progressive tradition that reaches from Concretism to neo-Concretism, to the current biennial-primed international conceptualism. These paintings chart circuitous itineraries between the cultural specificities that ground them and the mainstream pictorial traditions to which they connect at various points—routes that just might be mapped by Milhazes’ waywardly ornamental arabesques.

Barry Schwabsky is senior editor of TRANS>arts. and coauthor of Jessica Stockholder (London: Phaidon Press, 1995). His book The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.