Women get a rough deal in the art world. They're underrepresented in the collections of many museums, on the walls of many galleries, and in leadership positions at arts organizations (where they're usually paid less than their male counterparts). So "Jardim Botânico," an exhibition of work by Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes opening at PAMM this evening, isn't a big deal just because it's Milhazes' first survey in North America.
It's also a big deal because the exhibit encompasses two gigantic galleries and is made up of over 40 works borrowed from owners around the world -- works created by a woman.
It's hard to think of an artist, female or male, more deserving of the honor. Milhazes boasts a lengthy art career ("Jardim Botânico" follows just the most recent 25 years), as well as a status as one of the highest earning female artists in the world. In 2008, a Buenos Aires collector paid $1 million for one of her "painting collages," created using a paint transfer method invented by the artist herself. That puts her in a small club of women who've "broken the million-dollar mark," according to Vogue.
And then there's the inspiration behind the work itself, namely the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood where Milhazes has kept her studio for decades. From the vibrant colors of the nearby botanical garden (the inspiration for the exhibit's name) to the shapes of design elements like iron metalwork, Milhazes' giant canvases are practically billboards advertising her homeland. It seems like a no-brainer for Miami, which Milhazes calls "the most important joint between North and South America," to be the place that introduces her work to the rest of North America -- especially at PAMM, whose architecture is as influenced by the nature of the tropics as is Milhazes' art.
"It is not just a beautiful and fantastic building," Milhazes gushed about PAMM during a press preview yesterday. "It combines the landscape, beautiful views, and beautiful weather throughout the museum." Like her work itself, Milhazes explained, it allows visitors to "experience both art and nature."
Chora, menino (Cry, Boy),1996
At that preview, Milhazes downplayed the feminine side of her work. Though she said she owes much of her influence to Tarsila do Amaral and Brazil's other female artists -- "The woman plays a very important role in our [art] history" -- she doesn't consciously set out to communicate to her viewers as a woman. "[My work is] about my own background, it's about my own experience," she said. "Through that, I build up something about femininity."
Still, it's hard to ignore the feminine themes in the exhibit. Many of her paintings are adorned with flowers and hearts; she also lists jewelry as an influence. Even the process she uses to create, a layering of painted elements that she likens to collage, is an expertly executed form of handcrafting, fusing layers of color on the canvas like adding appliques to a quilt.
"Jardim Botânico" curator Tobias Ostrander explained another element of Milhazes' work that may hit especially close to home for women. Milhazes has earned fans all around the world, he said, many of whom have only seen her work in magazine articles or on a computer screen. In that form, her bold, graphic lines and shapes can appear solid and smooth, without any of the unique and varying texture that's visible when you view the canvases in person. You can get the same effect at PAMM by standing across the room from a particular piece, and then moving closer to examine it.
That, Ostrander said, creates a tension between perceived perfection and "damaged, vulnerable, hurt" qualities. His explanation brought to mind the conflict between women's outward appearances and their underlying foundations; the way a face covered in makeup looks different at a distance than it does up close; the way a Photoshopped photo of a model covers up her real-life curves and blemishes.
"It's the idea of striving for the ideal, but then ... the human quality of not getting there," Ostrander said. That's an experience all people, male and female, can recognize.
But to evoke that struggle in painstaking detail on the canvas, it took a woman.
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"Jardim Botanico" opens with an evening celebration Thursday, September 18, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The exhibit runs through January 11, 2015. Visit pamm.org.
Follow Ciara on Twitter: @ciaralavelle