New art at the end of the fairway

Given that she is in the throes of a whirlwind European tour, I expect Beatriz Milhazes to be weary. Yet despite packing Berlin, Istanbul, London and Paris into just one week, the petite, liquorice-haired Brazilian artist appears as up-tempo as her paintings.

“I had my opening in Berlin,” she announces cheerfully, over cappuccini in a quiet room at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. “Then I went straight on to the Biennial in Istanbul which was very good.” Her smile broadens at a memory: the Biennial’s co-curator, Adriano Pedrosa – also Brazilian – “is a very good friend”.

Despite their rapport, it is little surprise that Milhazes’ own work was absent in Turkey. Pedrosa’s show was a homage to an art of austerity, dominated by installations, film and photography, much of it predicated on political premises. But Milhazes’ canvases, their vast size in marked contrast to her own diminutive frame, fizz with abstract patterns in tropical hues. Pulsing with energy and exuberance, they evoke the indigenous folk art and musical rhythms of Brazil.

In refusing to allow intellectual ideas to dominate colour, line and composition, Milhazes defies prevailing trends. Yet her disinclination to follow fashion has not impeded her progress through the international art scene. Her paintings hang in MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum. In 2003, she represented Brazil in the Venice Biennale; 2009 witnessed a solo show at the Cartier Foundation in Paris.

Today, however, Milhazes is in town to talk about a show that is due to launch not here in the Whitechapel but far away in Florida, part of an initiative driven by the twin forces of private wealth and public spirit. Its roots stretch back to 1989 when the Canadian retail billionaire Galen Weston and his wife Hilary founded Windsor, a gated community on the coast of Florida.

Situated on a barrier island between the Indian River and Atlantic ocean, Windsor’s combination of security and stylishness – “a barefoot place in the sun ... [with] fresh lemons in January and your favourite newspaper on Sunday” entices the website – made it a haven for the wealthy. Yet despite the golf course, swimming pools and equestrian centre, there was no cultural space until 2002, when the Westons transformed one of the luminous, Anglo-Caribbean-style houses into an art gallery; exhibitions by the likes of Peter Doig, Alex Katz and Ed Ruscha followed.

Enter Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick. Aware the Westons were, as she puts it “good guys”, thanks to their £250,000 donation towards the gallery’s £13m expansion, she suggested a three-year partnership. In return for a consultancy fee of £60,000, and all costs covered, Blazwick and her team will deliver a trio of shows over three winters. The ingenuity is in the timing: each show will open on the Saturday of Art Basel Miami Beach, the day the world’s top art buyers have finished their shopping and long to kick back and relax.

Milhazes was chosen to launch the cycle partly because of her provenance. “I was thinking about Miami,” recalls Blazwick, “as a bridge between north, central and south America.”

The Brazilian’s exhibition will be devoted not to her paintings but to screenprints that she produced in collaboration with the Pennsylvania-based Durham Press, a decision motivated by both practical and artistic considerations. Generally, her prints are smaller than her paintings, so, Milhazes says, the “more intimate, organic space of this gallery, which used to be a house, is perfect”. More importantly, the craft of printing is key to her painterly process. “My early work used collages of cut-out fabric,” she recalls. “But the problem was that you could only use existing images; I wanted to make my own.”

Windsor, the gated community in which Milhazes’ work is being exhibited

Thus she developed a technique based on monotype printing, not dissimilar to that utilised by Gerhard Richter, which involved painting a motif on a plastic sheet, laying it on canvas and peeling it off. Now she was able to build up her paintings from overlapping layers of images unique to her. The results possess a depth and complexity which contrasts – in a way that fascinates Milhazes – with the smooth surfaces of the prints. “Printing is different ... It gives a very, very sophisticated surface. This one has more than 100 entries on the press.”

She points to a stamp-sized reproduction of “Fig”, a print which measures 70x47in in reality, yet even at this reduced scale socks the senses. Meticulous layers of swirls, spheres, scallops, grids of dots and lacy profusions, in lemon, lime, tangerine, indigo, sugar-pink and black, coalesce into a pattern that conjures Brazil’s perilous sensuality: the beat of samba, the heat of carnival, the flora of the Amazon rainforest. As Blazwick puts it, Milhazes captures not only her country’s beauty but its “decay and darkness ... degraded forms ... the way poor people use pattern and decoration”.

Yet Milhazes is no artist of the favelas. She is heir to a modernism that stretches from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, encompassing the dashing chromatism of Matisse and the Delaunays, the undulating patterns with which architect Roberto Burle Marxe decorated Copacabana promenade and the more surreal imaginings of Brazilian painter Tarsila Do Amaral.

The daughter of an art historian mother and a lawyer father, she studied in Rio at “a free art school” with a Scottish-born tutor, Charles Watson. “He taught me how to think about painting, not just technique but how to develop your own language, to be provocative.” She agrees that Rio’s elemental nature is a prime inspiration. “We have these tropical contrasts: the sky is really blue, the sun is really sunny, the green is not really a green.” Yet Milhazes makes it clear that these influences are merely “references” to be mediated through a studied artistic process. Her approach to carnival, for example, is “conceptual carnivalesca. I am not part of that world”. As for music, her great passion is opera and, although the “concept of bossa nova is connected to my work”, she much prefers silence in the studio.

This weekend, however, Milhazes must surrender to at least one soundtrack. For the American-born, avant-garde guitarist Arto Lindsay, who plunders Brazilian rhythms for his sensuous, dissonant creations, will give a performance at the Windsor gallery as part of a cycle of events to launch Milhazes’ exhibition.

Blazwick, who will be in conversation with Milhazes as part of the programme, aims to “build on the idea of a salon” with a coterie of art-world luminaries and collectors. “After the intensity of the fair, it is a chance for everybody to relax, sit and talk, engage with a body of work.”

Once the glittering inauguration is over, it remains to be seen how the show is received by the residents of Windsor’s pristine, palm-dotted thoroughfares. Blazwick has no illusions about the challenge. “It is an audience that is super-sophisticated and also uninitiated. You will have golfers and collectors all in the same space.”

The palpable tensions – between rich and poor, north and south, high and low, safety and danger – that make Milhazes’ work so stimulating also make her the ideal candidate to start off the Whitechapel Gallery’s rapport with Windsor. The East End and the east coast may seem like parallel worlds. But without each other, both would be the poorer.

‘Beatriz Milhazes: Screenprints 1996-2011’ at the Whitechapel Gallery at Windsor, from December 3 to February 29, 2012.

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