María Berrío’s dreamlike compositions render imaginary worlds at the intersection of myth, history, folklore, and personal experience. Her evocative scenes are populated by tragic heroines or “embodied ideals of femininity,” as she calls them, who inhabit rarefied and timeless space, limned through an unusual technique: the skillful alternation of watercolors on layers of collage created from Japanese paper. This beautiful world is also a heartbreaking one, vaguely referring to the political and social upheavals that victimize the weakest and most marginalized social classes.
Berrío’s exhibition “The Land of the Sun” told the story of a woman who is the sole survivor of a disaster in a postapocalyptic world on the verge of dissolving. One imagines the figure accompanied by only her pain and phantoms. The New York–based, Colombia-born artist conveyed an atmosphere close to what she identifies as “magical realism,” connecting to a deeply rooted tradition in Latin American literary and visual culture, particularly associated with her fellow Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. Like his writings, her art melds memory and fiction, challenging boundaries between reality and fantasy in a strategy to address the struggles and contradictions of the present.
Delicate, pastel-toned watercolor was fitting for the surreal plot suggested by the show, which also employed a number of Berrío’s recurring elements, including the natural environment where these works were set. Berrío draws upon her own experience of the regenerative power of nature in a childhood in Bogotá and a period spent studying in the countryside outside the Colombian capital. Her landscapes’ fairy-tale hues draw out the oneiric quality of these spaces, as an atmosphere of suspended time permeates the works. The women’s diaphanous faces and linear silhouettes rendered in dreamy tones lent them an evanescent, hieratic presence. Sisyphus, 2022, for instance, is named after the tragic character from Greek mythology. He was condemned by the gods to forever transport a heavy boulder to the summit of a hill, where it would inexorably roll back down, forcing him to start over again. In the artist’s interpretation, Sisyphus is a woman, whose unwavering gaze gives her the power of a protagonist who dominates the scene.
Closed Geometry, 2022, shows a contemporary Ophelia in a scene that recalls John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite composition: The young woman floats on a mirror of water, arms spread wide, eyes and pursed lips turned upward. She is surrounded by marsh plants and by vegetation that grows along the shore. Despite a heightened attention to detail, the atmosphere is unreal. The works’ multifaceted surfaces created an overall impression of detailed flatness, as Berrío moved between representation and ornamental abstraction. Byzantine and Japanese motifs came to mind, as well as elements of Gustav Klimt’s pale splendor. Berrío, however, supplements such art-historical references with a personal decorative language in which ornament is not empty form but instead structures the image by fostering interaction between diverse elements. In “The Land of the Sun,” Berrío made audible the silence that follows a catastrophe. Her powerful narrative works convey a solemn call for resilience and adaptation. They suggest that in the face of devastating loss, art can foster understanding and healing.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
— Eugenio Viola