María Berrío - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • Colombian artist María Berrío is a storyteller whose intricate and large-scale collage paintings unfold layers of narrative through lush, fantastical landscapes populated by enigmatic female figures. Executed in 2015, The Lovers 2 encapsulates this distinctive style, melding influences from magical realism and her own lived experience into a deeply introspective artwork that engages on multiple sensory and emotional levels. A patchwork of diversely sourced decorative papers, rhinestone elements and a delicate veneer of watercolor, The Lovers 2 interprets a Surrealist dreamscape that blurs Berrío’s biographical memory with South American mythology. Here, she explores themes spanning from beauty and the divine feminine, to intercultural connectivity and humankind’s relationship to nature.

     

    Berrío, originally from Colombia and now based in New York, crafts a vibrant and tactile tapestry of cross-cultural history in her work, offering a personal perspective. Berrío utilizes a variety of materials, primarily Japanese print paper, which she collages across the surface of the canvas, forming textured, dimensional portraits that confuse and delight the eye. This technique not only encourages close looking but also enriches the narrative, imbuing each constructed image with a tangible sense of time and place. The works become self-contained vessels that reflect not only the stories they tell, but the stories of their creation.

    “An individual work usually starts out very abstract, and then I build it up layer by layer, resulting in hundreds of layers of paper that are all woven together into one coherent piece. The work is thus informed by every bit of material layered in it, and by every place the materials hail from. This process of fusing cultural production from a wide range of places is inherent to the form and, more importantly, to the meaning.”
    —María Berrío 

    In The Lovers 2, this synthesis is evident in the intricate materiality of the expansive canvas. Berrío initiates each collage with a sketch, a blueprint that she says “inevitably changes” while making the piece. This fluidity allows her to weave together a narrative that transcends borders and cultures, echoing the diverse origins of materials sourced from a wide range of craft traditions. “I use handmade and machine-made paper produced almost exclusively in countries of the global south: Nepal, India, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil,” she elaborates, adding “I gravitate toward paper with natural motifs such as floral, plant, and animal patterns, as well as solid colors that evoke [nature].”i On top of this she adds areas of watercolor and, in the present work, individually applied Swarovski rhinestones which add touches of fluorescence, amplifying an otherworldliness and creating a picture of varying depths and frequencies. Berrío describes the process of working with collage as one filled with sensory delights—"Working with collage there is such a marvelous diversity of textures,” she enthuses. “Different sounds made as they are torn… I love the spreading of glue with sticky fingers, the stretching, the cutting. These collages are built layer by layer forming the topographical features upon the canvas.”ii These physical sensations manifest in the pictorial and emotional attributes of her work, as The Lovers 2 beckons not just a visual but also a tactile experience of viewing.

     

    Anne Boleyn, by Unknown English artist, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1533-1536. National Portrait Gallery, London. Image: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

    Discussing the women in her pictures, the artist says, “They are embodied ideals of femininity. The ghostly pallor of their skin suggests an otherworldliness; they appear to be more spirit that flesh. These are the women I want to be: strong, vulnerable, compassionate, courageous, and in harmony with themselves and nature.”iii  In The Lovers 2, Berrío’s heroine is at once central and elusive. She transcends traditional space, enshrined in a protective tableau of flowers that evokes a sense of suspended time. The indeterminate setting and the figure's interaction with symbolic elements like the bird and veil underscore a timeless narrative rooted in the feminine experience, one that floats between reality and myth.

     

    Berrío’s collage portraits are characterized both by the enigmatic women who inhabit them and the colorful, richly decorated clothing they wear. In The Lovers 2, this costuming is taken to new heights. Berrío’s subject is clothed in a multi-textured shawl and ornate, bejeweled headpiece, complete with a transparent veil. In the figure’s finery and positioning against a lush crimson backdrop, there is an evocation of the aesthetic and symbolic richness of Tudor and Elizabethan portraits from the late fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries. Both styles utilize elaborate regalia and intricate details to convey power and status, yet Berrío modernizes this concept by infusing her work with contemporary cultural and fantastical elements. Like the jewel-encrusted sitters of royal portraits past, Berrío's figure is similarly crowned and pallid. Her powdery complexion recalls the lead-whitened skin fashionable among high-ranking women of the period and even the presence of a bird motif is reminiscent of the pelican broach that Queen Elizabeth I was known to wear as a symbol of Christian sacrifice. 

     

    Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Neue Galerie, New York. Image: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

    Berrío clads her subject in the same current of symbolism and intricate clothing meant to express the identity and societal role of the sitter. However, she diverges by incorporating diverse, multicultural influences and materials, which breathe new life into the traditional portrait form. Through this process, she creates a dialogue between historical grandeur and modern expressions of femininity and empowerment. “The costumes are a way for me to bring these idealized images of women into reality,” she says, adding “my interest in collage grew out of my early days drawing patterns from wallpaper and fabric samples. The patterns I see in clothing inspire the patterns I use in my work. I get ideas from the Costume Institute at the Met, contemporary designers, and ballet costumes.”iv The designs found on the Japanese paper Berrío favors were themselves based on traditional kimono motifs. In Berrío's practice, these configurations seamlessly resurface in her multi-patterned upcycled couture, clothing her women in a fusion of heritage and innovation. However, rather than simply replicating existing designs, she revises them with a unique twist. By manipulating their symmetry, she fragments and reassembles them, infusing her creations with a raw, organic aesthetic.

    “I am also deeply influenced by the work of Leonora Carrington [who] created powerful depictions of women in dialogue with animals, tapping into mythology and psychology to render an imaginary world in which all beings live in perfect harmony.”
    —María Berrío

    Berrío's collage paintings are steeped in magical realism. They sit at a crossroads of visual and literary traditions, highlighting a continuum of artists who blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The present work, with its contrast of traditional modes of portraiture executed in an incongruous and highly non-traditional manner, interlaces the familiar and the bizarre in a manner reminiscent of Latin American Surrealist pioneer Frida Kahlo’s deeply personal and symbolic portraits that blend elements of her Mexican heritage with surreal and mythic motifs. Similarly, Berrío’s use of embellishment and elaborate floral dreamscapes draws parallels to Austrian Secession leader Gustav Klimt’s luxurious, gilt accents, jewel-toned flower fields, and intricate patterns imbued with symbolism and psychological resonance. In the literary realm, Berrío’s narrative approach reflects the complex, labyrinthine universes of Jorge Luis Borges and the poignant, interwoven realities characterized by Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism.

    “I spent much of my youth in Colombia on my family’s farm. There, surrounded by animals and plant life… we were given free rein in nature, and among the trees my imagination was free to roam…” 
    —María Berrío
    Berrío draws on South American folklore and personal memories, such as those from her childhood in rural Colombia and urban Bogotá. The Lovers 2 features a towering woman, her presence and that of the flamingo alongside her, invoking figures like Madremonte, or “Mother Mountain,” the mythical protector of forests from Colombian lore.These elements symbolize the integration of Berrío's cultural heritage with her artistic expression, using animals to represent the deeper aspects of the human spirit, a theme originating from her childhood connection to the natural world. Birds specifically recur throughout her oeuvre, including in her 2023 solo presentation, The Spirit in the Land, staged at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in North Carolina, which focused entirely on a series of hummingbird-themed works inspired by the Mojave peoples’ belief that the birds were pathfinders who lead the way from darkness into the light.

     

    Leonora Carrington, Self-Portrait, c. 1937-1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    In the context of The Lovers 2, the flamingo is not just a companion but a part of the woman’s identity. The pastel-pink feathers of the bird blend seamlessly with her pale, tattooed arms and shimmering veil, creating a visual continuity that makes it difficult to discern where the woman ends, and the flamingo begins. This blending is further emphasized by the bird's neck contorting behind the woman’s head, its feathers merging into the fabric of her dress. Such imagery suggests a symbiotic relationship between the two, highlighting themes of unity and the merging of separate entities into a single, harmonious whole. Through this interplay of human and animal elements, Berrío not only explores the aesthetic dimensions of her subjects but also delves into deeper themes of identity, coexistence, and the intrinsic ties that bind us to the natural world.

    “Birds have been a source of inspiration to people across the world for centuries. To me, birds symbolize freedom of the soul and transcendence of the earthly human form. The dove is a sign of peace in Judeo-Christianity; the hummingbird is a sign of good luck in Latin America; the eagle was thought to bring messages in Ancient Rome; the parrot was worshipped by the Maya. In my collage, all of these beautiful traditions come together to provide a global portrait of hope.”
    —María Berrío

    The choice of the flamingo—often associated with beauty and balance but also with rarity and an almost surreal appearance—enhances the painting's ethereal quality. Berrío’s use of this bird underscores her nuanced approach to depicting femininity and strength, showing that these qualities are not just inherent but are often acquired and expressed through relationships. Moreover, the woman's expression, veiled yet palpable through the transparent fabric adorned with pink geometric shapes, contrasts with that of her animal companion. The flamingo’s direct gaze contrasts with the woman’s distant stare, an unexpected detail that draws the viewer into a silent exchange. This interaction is heightened by the reflective quality of the rhinestones in the headdress, which parallels the eye-like ocelli on the peacock feather tassels, creating a visual rhythm that echoes themes of observation and perception, characteristic of Surrealism. Here, Berrío eloquently captures a sense of gestalt, where the individual components of the artwork contribute to a larger, integrated whole that represents more than the sum of its parts.

    Collector’s Digest

     

    • Major solo exhibitions include María Berrío: The Children’s Crusade, ICA Boston, USA (2023); María Berrío: Esperando mientras la noche florece (Waiting for the Night to Bloom), The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, USA (2021).

    • Berrío's work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, NC; Pérez Art Museum, Miami, FL; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; and the Ford Foundation, New York, NY.

     

    María Berrío, "‘As Complicated and Elusive as Reality’: María Berrío’s Many-Layered Collages (with an interview by C. J. Bartunek),” The Georgia Review, Spring 2019, online.

    ii  Ibid.

    iii Ibid.

    iv Ibid.

    v Alexxa Gotthardt, “María Berrío Uses South American Folklore and Myth As Her Muses,” Artsy Editorial, October 5 2015, online

    • Provenance

      Praxis Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Chicago
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Praxis Gallery, María Berrío: The Harmony of the Spheres, September 10–November 7, 2015, n.p. (illustrated)
      New York, Rachel Uffner Gallery, All That Glitters, June 29–August 2, 2017

    • Literature

      Alexxa Gotthardt, “Maria Berrio Uses South American Folklore and Myth as Her Muses,” Artsy, October 5, 2015, online (illustrated)

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The Lovers 2

signed, titled and dated ““The lovers 2” María Berrío 2015” on the reverse
watercolor, Swarovski rhinestones and Japanese rice paper collage on canvas
72 x 71 7/8 in. (182.9 x 182.6 cm)
Executed in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $274,999

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206
CKolberg@phillips.com

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024