A Review of Rio Azul by Beatriz Milhazes at White Cube Bermondsey, London

 
 Photo by Pepe Schettino

Photo by Pepe Schettino

 
 

A sun-drenched Sunday afternoon in Bermondsey was the perfect setting to see White Cube’s new show, a large-scale exhibition of works by prominent Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes. Entering the stark white space, I felt almost as if I had been transported away to the exotic climes of Brazil - as if when I exited the glass doors I would step out onto the Copacabana. I had always thought of Milhazes primarily as a painter and collage artist, so this exhibition, her first solo venture in London with her new representation by White Cube, served as an important lesson for me in highlighting her work across other medias, including her first foray into tapestry.  An accompanying film beautifully highlights the technicalities and ideas behind Milhazes’ practice of working with a multitude of materials. 

The phrase ‘Rio Azul’ translates to ‘blue river’ in Portuguese. The title of the large tapestry which is arguably the centrepiece of the show, it also lends its name to the exhibition. In a recent interview with Apollo, Milhazes discusses the inspiration she draws from rivers and from bodies of water - their ever-changing colour effects, as a result of changing lights, and their function as a life support system. 

I myself have yet to visit Rio, but Milhazes’ vision of it is exactly how I would imagine it - colourful, illustrious, vibrant, decadent, busy, a juxtaposition of colours and textures and effects. Milhazes takes much of her inspiration from the natural world - evident in the lusciously vibrant colours and textures within her work. An expressive accompanying film, GUARDE - ME, shows a clip of Milhazes wandering around the botanical gardens in Rio de Janeiro; her work continuously strives to echo and encapsulate her exuberant homeland even as she becomes more and more recognised on an international scale.

 

 
 
 Photo by Pepe Schettino

Photo by Pepe Schettino

 
 

Colour, is really the first thing you notice. But texture and design and media is key to this new show and to Milhazes’ move away from her painterly base. Collages become paintings which become fantastical mobiles, screens, and tapestries.  The tapestry itself, a knockout piece that is secreted away at the back of the largest of White Cube’s several galleries, is 16 metres in length and took two years to produce at a renowned French tapestry mill, the Pinton Mill, who produced work for Alexander Calder and Sonia Delauney amongst others.

The tapestry takes its inspiration quite clearly from the paintings, and Milhazes’ love of geometry and mathematics is inherent in her design choices.  In the tapestry, the vibrancy in colour and simplicity of motif reminded me of Delauney but also of Henri Matisse, who Milhazes cites as one of her greatest inspirations; Milhazes’ use of colour, though, is inherently her own and detaches her from being just a follower of the great French artists before her. There is a sense of modernity, too, that arises from her experimentations with colour - she does not shy away from darker tones, or blank canvas space, which adds a modern edge to her work.  Milhazes also cited the influence of Brazilian modernist artist and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx on the creation of Rio Azul, another artist heavily influenced by the landscapes of South America.

 

 
 
 Photo by Pepe Schettino

Photo by Pepe Schettino

 
 

Aesthetically speaking, everything in this show is fun. The mobiles in particular are utterly Instagram worthy, they could almost be gaudy but instead Milhazes connects them inherently back to her paintings - her colourfully geometric visions become tangible, three-dimensional, interactive installations that have their roots in the painted canvas, in a dynamic transition between art forms. These floral mobiles mark a departure from the Western artistic influence one might draw from studying Milhazes’ paintings. They are inherently Brazilian, inspired by works from her own archive (she made versions in 2004 and 2008), and conceptually designed as a set of chandelier-esque mobiles, consisting of fabric flowers, trinkets, and Carnival beads - viscerally conjuring up images of Carnival and of Brazil.

Hanging within the gallery space, these mobiles (and one version which acts more like a hanging screen) embrace cultural references and allow a more interactive dialogue with the viewer. There is a sense of the synthetic within these works, Pop-esque artworks which cleverly act as sculptural collages. 

 

 
 
 Photo by Pepe Schettino 

Photo by Pepe Schettino 

 
 

Milhazes’ work in this show is all about challenging ways of seeing - the collages themselves are intriguing, particularly the smaller versions, in which Milhazes re-appropriates packaging and logos to impart her geometric vision of the world - again transitioning from the original paintings.  It is tempting to link her multi-media work with that of the great Sonia Delauney, and certainly Milhazes is working within her legacy. But, although she boldly mixes a contemporary insight with homages to the Western art scene of the early twentieth century, ultimately, her art is a love letter to Brazil.

White Cube Bermondsey until 1st July 2018

Written by Georgia Messervy, a Contributor to Arteviste