No peaceful surfaces

Variance in Brazilian contemporary art

Critic Paulo Venancio Filho noted in 1989 that there is no one Brazilian art - expecting Brazil to be ‘thematised’ with such diversity within one country was unrealistic, and subduing art to one individual or movement was highly reductionist. Under comparison here are Luiz Zerbini, Beatriz Milhazes and Vik Muniz: three prominent, contemporary artists making waves for Brazil in the international art sphere.

Brazilian art underwent dramatic changes across the 20th century; beginning with clashes between Neoclassicists and Modernists at the 1922 Week of Modern Art and ending the century with a plethora of diverse movements, contemporary Brazilian art is some of the most experimental in the world. A particularly important development was the 1984 exhibition Como vai você Geração 80? (How are you doing, 80s generation?). Held at the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts - emphasising a ‘return to painting’ and demonstrating artistic freedoms suppressed after decades of military dictatorship, the exhibition showcased 123 contemporaries. Art critic Frederico Morais noted that the show emphasised a shift towards the art of the present as opposed to art for the museum: ‘[artists] invest in pleasure, in precarious materials, they perform works that do not want posthumous glory… they evade delusion from social utopias.’ Art becomes subjective, conceptual and deeply personal; instead of attempting to fix world problems, it now reflects and comments.

Both Zerbini and Milhazes exhibited at Como vai você Geração 80? becoming two of the exhibition's most successful participants. Luis Zerbini (b.1959) is certainly one of the most recognisable; self-defining as a ‘curious guy’ whose work is inherently ‘restless’, Zerbini’s abstract large-scale work juxtaposes organic and artificial matter. With a career spanning over four decades and many mediums, Zerbini’s style has evolved greatly: his 80s work described as having a ‘sober palette’, focussing on landscapes and human figures - now, his work is bursting with colourful, geometric and highly abstract shapes.

In particular, Árvore do Viajante represents the best of Zerbini’s current methods: abstraction, grids and fauna. Abandoning human figures in favour of the plants in his back garden, exotic plants become the protagonists in his recent works. His main inspiration comes from his local flora and fauna: ‘Plants are the most incredible beings on this world, responsible for our existence. I owe a lot to them.’ This is not just a passive interest in greenery, Zerbini takes an active environmentalist stance; most recently, his delayed exhibition at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery is entitled Fire to comment on the devastating fires seen in summer 2020. ‘Art, as everything, is political’ in this way for Zerbini.

In terms of style, he describes his development towards abstraction as a biological urge, as something he was predestined to create: ‘ day I would eventually arrive at this point. That’s the path I’m heading towards. The ‘grid’ seen here is also an artistic leitmotif associated with modernist art movements; it runs through much of Zerbini’s current work as a ‘visual and conceptual backbone’, overlaid onto landscapes to create carefully ordered chaos. Zerbini himself describes this as an attempt to work closely with traditional Brazilian art techniques - the geometrical movement of Rio de Janeiro was incredibly strong, and he wishes to pay homage to this through developing the grid technique. In juxtaposing the wild forms of exotica with the uniform structure of grids, Zerbini creates tensions between the old and new, natural and man-made, and envisions hope for a green future.

Simply stating that the work of contemporary Beatriz Milhazes (b.1960) is similar to Zerbini reduces both artists drastically: as Paulo Venancio Filho noted, there is no one Brazilian art. Milhazes is multidisciplinary, focusing primarily on painting and collage. Whilst she speaks an ‘international language’, Milhazes states her interests lie primarily ‘in things and behaviours that can only be found in Brazil. Milhazes draws inspiration from everywhere: citing Matisse and Mondrian as well as Carnaval culture, Baroque colonial architecture and fabric design, she feels it essential to combine non-artistic influences into her work. This variant mix of inspirations creates tension in her work; blending European and Brazilian modernism, she marries high and low culture in an eye-catching, distinctly individual work. Milhazes embraces this ‘conflict’: ‘These are not peaceful surfaces. There should be some struggle on the surface, and then create some activities for your eyes.’

Pó de arroz, in particular, pushes her geometrical composition to extremities: teeming with colour and seeming to burst outside of its borders, the work assumes elements beyond the two-dimensional structure of the canvas. Where Zerbini layers each painting with acrylic, Milhazes uses decal technique in her painting: images are painted on sheets of plastic and applied to the canvas through transference; Milhazes states this is because she ‘does not want the texture of the brushstrokes or the “hand” of the painter to be visible on my canvas.’ This process is evident in the finished painting. In Pó de arroz, one can see - sections where the paint has lifted and the canvas shines through. Whilst the ‘hand’ of her painting is not visible, evidence of technique places the painting within the realms of human error as opposed to a clinical, perfect object. In this way, the creation of art supersedes the artist themself, the act of painting immortalised in the final art and exposing vulnerable canvas. Her artistic process is one with the finished product, the painting revealing the vulnerabilities of its own construction. Whereas Zerbini’s work is often still recognisable as flora and fauna, Milhazes pushes the boundaries of abstraction.

Moving into Vik Muniz (b.1961), his art is undoubtedly different from that of Zerbini and Milhazes. Where they work with ‘traditional’ mediums of paint, Muniz creates work out of unusual found items: most famously, his 2010 Waste Land exhibition recreated iconic paintings out of the landfill. He primarily works in photography and collage: creating collages of beautiful images out of recycled materials, and displaying the result as an (often enormous) photograph.

Like Milhazes, the process of Muniz’s art is unavoidable in the ‘final’ product: his aim is not to create a ‘finished’ product, instead, he aims to present a ‘narrative’ - ‘I don’t want [the audience] to see something represented. I prefer for them to see how something gets to represent something else.’ His work is one cog in a larger network of action and perception; never final, and entirely connected to its surroundings. The act of dismembering, repurposing and refashioning into beauty has an element of Zerbini’s ecological message, except far more experimental in the medium. Muniz cites 19th-century art, specifically 19th-century photography, as a source of inspiration: ‘everything that has ruled and structured my life has been based upon ideas that were in the previous century.’ Historicising his work this way sets his art as a natural outcome of modern living: our society lives to produce junk, therefore why not make art out of it? The Birth of Venus (from Pictures of Junk) copies Botticelli’s iconic triptych, recreating the archetypal fifteenth-century woman - entirely out of discarded rubbish. The paradox between materials and creation is stark - Muniz encourages the viewer to move beyond viewing ‘trash’ as something worthless. To create beauty out of waste.

These three artists, in my opinion, represent the diversity and individuality of contemporary Brazilian art. From Zerbini to Muniz, however different in style, one thing unites them: these are not peaceful surfaces.

Follow Elliot on his Instagram @el.iott