From colonial-era Spanish casta paintings, which sought to identify people of mixed race, to a 1976 Brazilian census asking citizens to define the color of their skin, such categorization has long been woven into the fabric of South American culture. Varejão uses terms from that census—such as “milky coffee” or “sun kissed”—as a jumping-off point for her palette. She applies these colors to her skin with a lack of sentimentality akin to digital manipulation. In each triptych, Varejão’s skin tone alternately darkens and lightens with the cool precision of scientific control.
The examination of color went beyond the paintings themselves to include color wheels depicting the palettes of the “Polvo Portraits” series and an installation of oil-paint tubes filled with paints the artist used, presented under glass. Varejão here extended her reach past the canvas, past the mixing of colors as depicted on a wheel, and back to the source in the form of simple metal tubes that give no indication of what might be inside.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 94.