Beatriz Milhazes' work speaks of foreign things in a familiar language. This would perhaps account for much of the recent positive reception of this Brazilian painter in North American and European art circles. Facing one of her works, viewers may be pleased to recognise stereotypical elements that they have more or less carelessly constructed of the tropics (and Brazil stands in here, quite fittingly, for that vast, mysterious and sensual continent).
Milhazes is perhaps the only artist in Brazil to have critically addressed the exotic imagery identified with the country, doing so through the dextrous use of Modernist pictorial language. In her vividly coloured and intricately constructed paintings, Milhazes sets up an engaging play between low 'foreign' references and high European language. Figurative and abstract elements appropriated from tropical fauna and flora, folk art and craft, local pop culture, low fashion, jewellery, embroidery and lace, carnival and the colonial baroque are her major thematic sources, though recently Milhazes has also expanded her repertoire to include elements of a more 'international' origin (from Art Deco to 50s design motifs). Her palette of dazzling colours and hues could be taken, at a first glance, as being typically 'native'; unsurprisingly, the use of black and white is scarce. Despite the unexpected colour juxtapositions, the overall result has a tense yet balanced pictorial effect (quasi-symmetry is one of the cunning compositional devices). In front of these carefully packed compositions with their elaborate play between figures, grounds, transparency and superimposition, your eye may wander through (if not fall prey to) labyrinthine trajectories.
It is curious to see how Milhazes' paintings migrate from her studio in Rio to her gallery in SoHo. At her relatively small work space near the city's beautiful Botanical Gardens (the flora, the fauna!), the paintings which are rarely larger than 2.5 x 2.5 m invade the compact rooms. There, due to the exiguous space (and far from Edward Thorp's spacious white cube), the luscious, misleading and engulfing tableaux push you against the wall and force you to inspect the painting's surface. Milhazes' technique is to paint onto plastic, peel off the dried acrylic and glue it to the canvas. As a result, the brush strokes are still detectable, yet they have been frozen mid-way through the painting process, bearing a slick yet still gestural, duplicitous character (a feature which distinguishes her work from that of Pittman and Taaffe, two North American painters to whom she has been compared).
Milhazes' painting bears an uneasy ironic character. In one painting a certain tropical fruit is in fact appropriated from Eckhout the Dutch painter who travelled through Brazil in the 18th century and rendered in blue. One enthusiastic New York reviewer described her paintings as 'rare Amazonian plants'. But if the works are (stereo)typically Brazilian or Latin American, as Milhazes' foreign commentators often proclaim, they play off this character with a less picturesque, less Edenic tone. The paintings are full of fictitious elements, small strategic forgeries and seemingly irreconcilable juxtapositions. Above all, they impose a sense of excess and confinement (in form and content) that is enlightening, suffocating and disorienting.