Maria Berrio is an artist whose large-scale, dream-like collages incorporate patterned Japanese rice paper with sequins, leaves, gold leaf, and other materials to make layered art often rooted in South American mythology. She blends magical realism with figuration in narrative portraits mostly of women.
Berrio was born in Bogota, Colombia and relocated to New York City when she was eighteen years old. She graduated with a B.F.A. in 2004 from the Parsons School of Design and received her M.F.A. in 2007 from the School of Visual Arts.
Inspired by South American folklore where people and nature exist together, her women, who look somewhat ‘mestiza’, seem to live in dreamscapes of intimate settings. Berrio says that these women ““are embodied ideas of femininity. The ghostly pallor of their skin suggests another worldliness; they appear to be more spirit than flesh.” Yet, they appear as powerful women in a relationship with the natural environment. “A lot of my work is autobiographical . . . it also relates to other people and other things too, to imaginary beings, to ecology, to magical realism, to surrealism too, but at the same time (it) is always me.”
Sometimes Berrio will combine both an indoor scene and an outdoor scene. In her “Flower Mirror Water Moon,” a woman sits outside facing the viewer holding a bird. Through the open door behind her there is another woman sitting on a bed with her back to us. She is looking out of a window at a mountain landscape. There is ambiguity here as our eye is drawn from outside to inside and then continues to the outside view of a vividly colored mountain landscape.
Nothing seems to be happening in these works. However Berrio’s intricate collage technique animates the works’ surfaces. The images are constructed on very large stretched canvases. Using paper like paint, Berrio lays down narrow strips of cut paper – either painted or printed – to contour a human body or a gnarled tree. She then adds tiny flakes to represent flowers or leaves. She draws in some details such as the faces and hands of the people or the eyes and delicate beak of a bird. The flatness of the surface gives her work a faceted, jewel-like appearance.
Berrio also presents the reality of political and social issues in works that reference real events, environmental catastrophes, ruined landscapes, humanitarian issues, women’s rights, and global migration. Her 2017 “Wildflowers” shows women, children, animals and a train which could refer to people in a New York subway or people on ‘La Bestia’, the Mexican train which transports migrants to the U.S. Border. Her “A Cloud’s Roots” shows two women looking directly at a viewer. They are standing in front of a giant tree whose limbs spread out as if holding up the clouds. This work is an evocation of the recent immigrant experience, both floating in the sky but grounded on earth.
In 2017, Berrio was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to make a mosaic installation, “The Magic Is Underneath All,” at the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway station in Brooklyn.
In 2021, Berrio was the recipient of the Joan Mitchell Fellowship. Her first survey show was on view at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Her work was featured at Frieze Los Angeles in February 2022 where she blended the thirteenth-century Children’s Crusade with the current migrations across the Mediterranean and the U.S. border. She is currently featured in the exhibition “Women Painting Women” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through September 25, 2022.
Her work is is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney museum of American Art, the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Miami’s Perez Art Museum, Nasher Museum of Art, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, among others.