Beatriz Milhazes Lecture

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Visiting Artist Programme
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
December 3, 2013

Expecting a huge turnout, I arrived a little early at the Columbus Auditorium to bag a seat, only to find I was one of the first to arrive. Obviously, SAIC students aren’t as enticed by Beatriz Milhazes work as they are by Andrea Zittel or Janine Antoni who both spoke to full houses. She is probably less known in the US, exhibiting in New York but with projects primarily in Europe and her native Brazil where she still lives and works. 

Andrea Green, Director of the Visiting Artist Programme, made the initial welcome, followed by a croaky biography and introduction by Terry Myers who is Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department. He described Milhazes work as ‘hybrid, in the best possible way’ which was a fitting explanation of her distinctive mash-up of painting and collage.

I was first introduced to Milhazes work by accident in the Spring of 2009; coming across her solo show at the Fondation Cartier contemporary art gallery whilst looking for a patisserie in Montparnasse. The vibrancy of her palette, the surface qualities of her acrylic transfer technique and the intriguing vinyl window installation was compelling and refreshing. I was hoping she would be as captivating and exuberant in person.

Keeping in mind that she is not a native English speaker, Milhazes speech was far from fluid and at times she struggled to find the right words and sentence structures. Initially it felt jarring and hard to follow; but as the talk progressed, I came to enjoy her matter of fact descriptions and unique turn of phrase. Her slides were organized sequentially and all the titles and work descriptions were in Portuguese, with dimensions in centimetres. I felt she could have taken the time to translate this to suit her US audience, especially as this is such a prestigious honour and well-paid gig.

She began by speaking about work from the early 1980’s, and continued through the decades noting shifts of focus in her work, some of which were imperceptible. She concluded with an impressive array of large-scale international site-specific projects as well as a series of silkscreens created in collaboration with Durham Press, set design, some decidedly Jacob Hashimoto-esque mobiles and two artist books.

Generally, Milhazes spoke about the formal qualities in her work, siting herself as a geometric abstract artist who is focused on making order by organizing forms and colour into structures. She sited Surrealism, Op art and Pop art as influences and the Rio Carnival, Brazilian music, plant forms and lace as inspiration. I got the feeling she has been largely self-directed in her practice; she certainly knows where she is headed and must have been a demanding co-collaborator on her silkscreen projects. I appreciated the emphasis she placed on the hand, not getting enticed into the digital world even though her work embodies that aesthetic, and how she prefers to work alone in her studio with studio assistants only assisting with documentation and computer translations for site-specific work.

A couple of comments stood out for me amongst the somewhat chaotic organization of her thoughts. Milhazes advised artists they can have as many sources as they like, but they must forget these interests in the studio in order to actually create a tangible structure. I agree wholeheartedly and have seen proof of this in my time at SAIC where the idea can mask the actual visual output.  She also kept referring to the fact that she doesn’t ever draw, and instead works straight onto the canvas with no preparatory sketches or layouts. As much as I value drawing as a research and planning tool, it makes sense that Milhazes doesn’t – patience and groundwork aren’t high on her list of priorities.

I concluded that Milhazes is indeed like her paintings; vivacious yet set in her ways and full of drive and genuine love for what she does.

Janna van Hasselt

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