In the Studio with Marina Perez Simão. Words by Sofia Hallström

The Brazilian artist tells us about her approach with colour, conveying the feeling of living in the dramatic hills of Minas Gerais and capturing the crackling storms of Rio di Janeiro in her paintings. The following conversation was recorded in the week leading up to her first UK solo exhibition at Pace Gallery.
Sofia Hallström: Your upcoming solo show ‘Onda’ at Pace in London will take over the entirety of the Hanover Square galleries. Can you talk a little bit about what we can expect from the show?

Marina Perez Simão: The exhibition will be a continuation of the work that I've been doing and new things that I have tried. In my studio, I put the paintings on the wall and sort of pile them up, one in front of the other and next to each other. In the last few years, I started to see that the format of the paintings are the size of my body. I’ve noticed patterns that are very similar and coincidences in the lines between the paintings that appear, all these sorts of rhymes of forms. I started to get a feeling that when I look at them, some of the brushstrokes and the forms flow into the next painting by coincidence or not, I don't know. Because of this, I thought that I should try to make multi-panel works and to make this more visual in the exhibition for everybody else too, I wanted to capture this experience that I get in my studio. The show feels much more musical this time. Sometimes you see the landscape but they are more like beings. These paintings are much more theatrical. Especially because in these pieces, you see the landscape of course, but it's attempting to transcend that and start to think about the musicality of the paint. This was my intention.

Installation View, Marina Perez Simão: Onda, September7–October1, 2021, Pace Gallery, London © Marina Perez Simão. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

SH: Colour is a powerful communication tool, it can influence mood and even influence physiological reactions. Do you think about this whilst you're working? Or maybe the effect that it might have on the viewer?

MPS: Yes, I do. It's the most difficult part of the work. The colour aspect is very difficult for every painter. Painting is very difficult in general. For me it's really, really hard. When I paint, I make some watercolour studies before in order to prepare myself. When the colours start to appear, the main goal is to surprise myself. I have to find a light that is sometimes unsettling or is a surprise for me. I have to have a feeling that I’ve never seen this before in real life. But not in an obvious way. Sometimes I like the ambiguity of not being able to tell if it's day or night. What sort of atmosphere is that? I am very aware of colour theory and a lot of the time I refer to the theory in order to achieve colour balance, but other times I just ignore it because I would much rather have an unsettling feeling with the painting than to surrender to a complementarity that is not new for me. I really try to play around with tonalities. I'm always pushing myself to create something that is new for me. Of course if you go through history books, I’m sure you will find somebody else, somewhere who has done this before, but it has to be new for me. My main goal is to not repeat myself all the time. I am pushing myself to attempt different combinations and different formalities.

SH: You mentioned that when you started painting and drawing, the work was black and white! Can you tell us about your journey with colour?

MPS: Yes. When I started in art school, I always had a lot of respect for the medium of paint. But I actually had more of an ability with sculpture and drawing! I started with drawing because I think to be a good painter, one has to have a strong skeleton: you have to have strong bones, and then you can build on top of it. I started very humbly, with only pencil and paper. When I began painting, I started with only a little bit of colour, I started to paint a little bit bigger and then more colours started to appear, but it was a slow process for me. It was something that was built over time. At the same time studying everything that you need to study in order to be a good painter, like art history and looking at other artists.

I always had this feeling that you have to conquer your colours. It's not like “oh, let's put some blue over here.” Once my father asked me “why don’t you paint with Matisse blue?” and I said, “I cannot use this blue, I have to find my own blue!” It's really hard to work with colour and you learn with time. I'm still learning every day. I am very critical of myself. The learning will never stop, I have this impression that until the day I die I will never stop learning. It's infinite. And this is only the colour aspect, not to mention the composition itself!

Installation View, Marina Perez Simão: Onda, September7–October1, 2021, Pace Gallery, London © Marina Perez Simão. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery

SH: When we spoke previously you mentioned the negotiation with colour in the paintings. Is a sense of balance and colour harmony important to you in the work?  

MPS: Yes. Colour is there to reveal a form for me, and vice versa with composition. Like in a ballet, the dancer makes a gesture. The music reveals the gesture but also the gesture reveals the intensity of the music. I use colour to enhance a moment of the composition that I think is important. In order for it to work I have to negotiate with the colours around it. Like I said, sometimes I surrender to the complementarity colour theory but sometimes I do not. It's a negotiation as it is intuitive but sometimes it's not. It's a balance between these two things.

SH: There is a further negotiation with scale in the work, usually measured against the scale of your body. Is there a correlation between this bodily scale and the subject matter of the work?

MPS: I'm not really aware of how I choose the size of the canvas but, like my journey with colour, I got to these sizes throughout the years. I work with these sizes as they are made for me, for my size. Within one full gesture, I want to be able to reach the whole surface, because I don't like too much hesitation in painting. I really like the directness and fluidity that the scale gives me.

After I have done my watercolour studies, sometimes it is clear that one study has to be big and sometimes it's very clear that another study has to be small. Sometimes I get it wrong, sometimes I might paint something small and I’ll see that this will be much stronger if it was big. I like the difference of scale because it creates a different relationship between the viewer and the work that I really like. It’s two ways of reading.

SH: It's an instinctual process…

MPS: Yes, you trust your instinct but then you have to doubt your instinct sometimes. You have to question it, and I don't always go with my instinct. When I'm not happy with a painting, and this happens a lot of the time, I just turn it over and don't look at it and then try to see it with fresh eyes weeks later and see what's wrong with it. Sometimes it's a matter of tuning the colours, like with an instrument if the pitch isn't right.

SH: The works are deeply rooted in the Brazilian landscape, too. Does each body of work hold its own certain narrative?

MPS: It's rooted in the feeling of living in the landscape, rather than the landscape itself. It's very dramatic, often the weather will turn unexpectedly and the colours are so weird here. The region that I come from has a lot of mountains and there's a lot of mountains in the work too.

Marina Perez Simão, Studio Portrait, 2022. Photography by Cassia Tabatini, image courtesy Pace Gallery

SH: You studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a renowned institution where Monet, Degas and Bonnard studied. Has that particular history of painting influenced your motifs, techniques or practice in any way?

MPS: I am very curious about the history of art, also because when I say history of art I'm talking about Western history. In Brazil it's different. I'm Brazilian and my references are different. I am very curious about it because it's new. Of course I knew about Matisse and these painters because I had books in my house when I was young and I got to travel. The first time I went to the Louvre I was twenty-four years old. I was amazed. We don't have these big museums in Brazil. When I got to the École des Beaux-Arts, we had composition class at the Louvre and I copied a Rubens painting for one year and a half, everyday, with only pencil and paper. Only the composition, only the skeleton of the painting. I studied all the French movements and the way they handle colour in such depth too. I just wanted to absorb everything when I was there.

SH: I wanted to talk a little about your journey as an artist. When did you know this was a path you wanted to pursue?

MPS: My mum and my grandmother both painted. My mum was very artistic. She painted, she played the guitar, she wrote poetry. My father is very passionate about art and music. I grew up in a very artistic environment. Every kid draws, but artists are the ones that keep drawing after they have grown up. I was always drawing in school, I remember drawing once in a maths class and my teacher came over and gave me a Frida Kahlo book and I loved it. My father realised that I was always drawing and playing with clay by myself so he would put me in painting class when we were on school holidays. But then I went to law school when I was seventeen. But I was still painting by myself so my dad said why don't you go to art school, but keep studying law. He was like, “you have to graduate!” I didn't think of becoming an artist, I just wanted to have a proper job and I thought that law was a noble profession. So I went to art school whilst still studying law.

SH: How do you prepare yourself in the studio before you start to work?

MPS: I don't like having people in the studio. It's very zen there, it's very clean. I don’t sit, I work standing up and I don't wear shoes. I listen to music and I like to work undisturbed and I always tell people to visit after five o’clock in the afternoon because I have to work in one continuous flow. I don't like to have internet in the studio either. There's the real world, and then there's my studio - they are separate. It's another world for me. It's a sacred space, I have to be well and I have to be centred.

SH: Do you have any advice for artists working today?

MPS: Who am I to give advice, I need advice! I guess to study and to find your own truth. I like it when I make something that I cannot relate to anybody else. You have to find your own path and your own way of doing things. Also, if you are not ok alone, you won't enjoy being an artist. An artist is usually in silence and alone all day. Sometimes my grandma will call me in the evenings and say that I sound like I have just woken up! I’ll say, “No, I just haven't spoken to anyone all day!”

Installation View, Marina Perez Simão: Onda, September7–October1, 2021, Pace Gallery, London © Marina Perez Simão. Photo: Damian Griffiths, courtesy Pace Gallery
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In the Studio with Marina Perez Simão. Photography by Matheus Yehudi, image courtesy Pace Gallery