New York artist María Berrío’s dream-like collages at Kohn Gallery are ecstatically beautiful. The eight works on view depict figures — mostly women who look vaguely mestiza — in intimate settings, either indoors or in expansive natural landscapes. Nothing much is happening, but Berrío’s intricate collage technique animates the works’ surfaces, making them crackle with energy.
Unusually large for collage — the widest is 10 feet across — the images are constructed on stretched canvases, like paintings. Most of the surface is covered with paper, either painted or printed, although Berrío has drawn in some details such as faces and hands.
Largely, she uses paper like paint, laying down narrow, tapering strips to contour a body, or tiny flakes to make an intricate floral print. The overall effect is both insanely detailed and naively flat. The surfaces look faceted, almost jewel-like, reminiscent of the dazzling patterns of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The pictures are literally patchworks, assembled from bits and pieces. They feel of this world but also improbable, as if held together by magic.
In “Flower Mirror Water Moon,” a woman wearing a floral-print shirt sits facing the viewer. She gingerly holds a bird in her hands, as if she’s just rescued it. Through the open door at her back, we see another woman sitting on a brightly striped bed, gazing out the window at a mountain landscape. The story is ambiguous, but the image draws our eye from inside to outside, from the delicate wild bird, through doors and windows to the stolid mountains. Despite its static figures, the image suggests movement and transition.
Most of the landscapes are arid and golden, populated with gnarled trees. The press release notes that Berrío, an immigrant from Colombia, was inspired by the dragon’s blood tree, which has adapted to the dry and rocky soil on an island off Yemen. I was struck, however, by how much the images evoke the American West, another seemingly inhospitable place that became and continues to be a site of migration and conquest in the pursuit of dreams.
The show is appropriately titled “A Cloud’s Roots,” which is an oxymoron of sorts, evoking an impossible suspension. It’s a poetic evocation of the immigrant experience, both floating and grounded. In a collage of the same name, two women stand resolutely in front of one of Berrío’s spreading trees. It may very well be holding up the clouds, which glower with the promise of a storm. And yet the women, like the tree, stand unperturbed, defiant. Never mind the inhospitable soil, they are here to stay.
Kohn Gallery, 1227 N. Highland Ave., L.A. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 24. (323) 461-3311 and kohngallery.com
Support coverage of the local arts scene. Read our news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.