SÃO PAULO — Art critic Guy Brett once wrote that the power of the iconic Brazilian artist Lygia Clark stemmed from her merging of cerebral and bodily elements. One could say the same about her contemporary counterpart, Beatriz Milhazes, the subject of a two-part exhibition at São Paulo’s Museum of Art (MASP) and Instituto Itaú Cultural. With 170 works, Avenida Paulista is Milhazes’s largest survey to date.
The exhibition offers an engrossing overview of how the artist cross-pollinates painting and printmaking, increasingly favoring collage as her primary method. Milhazes’s “high-low” hybrids — if one considers the unequal status often granted to printmaking versus painting — sustain a productive tension between lushness and crispness, baroque and geometric form.
In 1989, Milhazes initiated her “monotransfer” technique, wherein she paints motifs on transparent plastic which, like a decal, are imprinted onto her paintings. The result is often flat enough for it to not be immediately obvious which elements are painted or decaled, though roses and circles are clearly the artist’s favorite monotransfer refrains. The technique has turned Milhazes’s lines crispier. But what she’s lost in expressive sweep she has gained in depth. Drawn in by the endlessly and intricately overlaid colors and patterns, one must enter into Milhazes’s latest canvases, so to speak, rather than scan the eyes across them.
Milhazes instills humble elements of material culture with pulsating energy. Even though she doesn’t ostensibly evoke the body in her art, the sheer physicality of her large-scale woodblock printing, combined with the sensuality of her complex acrylic paintings, implies a bodily presence. This commitment to the bodily and material is particularly striking in the installation at MASP, where the curators reverse the chronology of Milhazes’s career, presenting her newest work first. Seeing the forceful, jazzy, architectonic works from the 2000s, one might be surprised to discover their lyrical predecessors. These are shown behind the former, since MASP intersperses paintings on easels, as originally intended by the architect Lina Bo Bardi, rather than on walls, thus heightening the sense of a reveal. Milhazes’s acrylic on canvas, “Help Yourself,” from 1995, has a Matisse-like flatness: on a ginger-rust background, a mocha-white swirl overlaps with intricately patterned circles and a heart-shaped form. As in many of her acrylics, the work’s flatness renders it semi-abstract. But the composition also suggests a plausibly real scenario: a table-top seen from above, a foamy cappuccino in a cup, and hand-crafted doilies.
Such homely, quotidian, not to mention historically feminine evocations run through the show. In a joyful, playful fashion, the artist beckons the viewer with convivial titles, such as “Senhorita with her pets” (1993), or “The Popular” (1995) — Milhazes’s nod to her thematic repertoire. Some works are faintly spiritualist. One senses a connective thread extending from Hilma af Klint to the Op Art artist Bridget Riley, who influenced Milhazes. The spiritual and optical-abstract converge in Milhazes’s small acrylic, “Little Church” (2012–2013), its hypnotically inlaid, fiercely luminous flower like a sunlit church rosette. In the wavy, infinitely Venn-diagrammatic wonder, “Potato Dreaming” (2003), geometry itself hallucinates.
Like some of the recent works at MASP, the prints at Itaú Cultural surrender arabesque curlicues to crisply geometric, but no less intricate, patterning. The show’s curator, Ivo Mesquita, places side-by-side works with the same recurring flower motifs executed in different media, thus drawing visitors’ attention to the relative muteness of the paintings, versus the hypnotic vibrancy of the prints. “Purple Dahlia” (2015), a screen print and woodblock, is a mauve-marine-hued dreamscape, whose interlocking circles and bands of billowing color recall many moons setting all at once in a primordial ocean. “Serpentine” (2003), another screen print — most of which were executed at Durham Press, in Pennsylvania — offsets concentric golden-brown dots with a stark eye motif, recalling the symbol of divine might so often seen in shops that sell orientalist fabrics and wares. Here the common materialist consumption of spirituality nevertheless produces an enthralling visual effect.
To push slightly against Milhazes’s prodigious method, one might quip that submitting such diverse cultural referents — “Buddha,” “Jamaica,” “Havana,” “Prague,” to name a few of her titles, which together read like a travelogue — to similar, albeit rigorous, processes risks resulting in a “global village” effect, which in turn erases individual distinctive marks. In rare instances, such collapsing of difference, combined with the artist’s reliance on recursive forms, comes across as reductionist — particularly where Milhazes seems to simply reproduce rather than comment on such forms. Add to this her incorporation of branding, mainly shiny chocolate wrappings, and you suddenly have an aesthetic cornucopia that dovetails with the capitalist logic that drinks from many fonts, only to produce more of the same. Milhazes seems well aware of this danger. “Liberty” (2007) collages a titular sign in block letters with other branding, paper shopping bags, and glitzy, eye-grabbing patterns. The work evinces a wry skepticism towards the market’s co-option of beauty and diversity. “Freedom” here means nothing more than an invitation to consume.
Beatriz Milhazes: Avenida Paulista continues through May 30 at Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Instituto Itaú Cultural (Avenida Paulista 1578 and Avenida Paulista 149, respectively, São Paulo, Brazil). The exhibition is curated by Adriano Pedrosa, Amanda Carneiro, and Ivo Mesquita.