Toronto-based artist Jeanine Brito (b. 1993) is telling her own fairy tales in bold visions of red and pink paint.
The artist, who was born in Mainz, Germany, and raised in Toronto, recently held her first U.S. solo exhibition, “The Invitation: A Fairytale by Jeanine Brito,” at Nicodim Gallery’s Los Angeles space—a show that felt like falling into a picture book. Inspired by the peculiar combination of brutality and beauty found in the pages of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s children’s stories, Brito conceived of the exhibition as a space to construct her very own fairy tale—one that was dark, visceral, and glamorously theatrical at once.
Nine paintings, each with its own narrative rhyming title, formed the story’s arc: A beautiful woman—with porcelain skin, long dark hair, and bright blue eyes—births a lamb with the whitest wool. But when the woman receives an invitation to a royal ball, she skins the lamb to make a pair of exquisite leather gloves. Erupting in a moment of anguish at the ball, the woman rushes home and consumes the remains of the baby lamb.
“I love how dark and grotesque fairy tales can be,” Brito explained in a video call from Mainz, where she is spending much of the summer. “I had been reading and rereading many of these stories, and the recurring motif of the wicked mother figure caught my attention. I’d like to have a child, but as a woman in the art world, it can be contentious. In my anxiety, I had the urge to cast myself as this horrifically selfish mother who skins her child to make these gloves for a ball. The story and exhibition formed itself around that visual.”
The paintings are both elegant and gruesome at once, painted in an intense palette of reds, pinks, greens, and bright whites. “I like the garishness of red and pink together and the green adds a noxious element,” Brito explained. The figures are elongated, almost Mannerist in their contortion.
The “wicked mother” in this series—and in all of Brito’s paintings, in fact—is based on Brito herself. This oblique self-portraiture was first born of necessity; Brito, who studied and worked in fashion graphics for most of her career, is a self-taught painter. While she had dabbled here and there over the years, she devoted herself to practice in earnest during the early months of the pandemic. Artistic freedom came with it; in reimagining herself in different guises, she felt free to synthesize a breadth of cinematic, artistic, and childhood influences.
“In the beginning, I was painting these little figures on the smaller canvases, and they were also a sort of a version of me. I was staring at my own face on Zoom all day at work and then going to paint. I was what I had on hand. It helped that I didn’t have to conjure someone up in my mind,” Brito explained. “Now, though, the paintings are very personal and filled with personal symbolism, so placing myself within them feels important. I don’t think I’d paint a stranger at this point.”
Among these influences, Brito notes Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini in her exaggeration of the body, along with the self-portraiture of Frida Kahlo. She also aligns herself with the aesthetics of illuminated manuscripts and Mannerist masters like Pontormo and Parmigiano.
Films from her childhood have also shaped her visual lexicon. Spending summers in Mainz with her grandmother, Brito remembers watching Czech and Russian fairy tale films from the 1970s on repeat.
“Vladimir Bychkov’s film The Little Mermaid from 1976 is the most visually spectacular experience. It retells the original version of that story where the mermaid dissolves into sea foam at the end,” said Brito, “These films were children’s movies in a sense, but they’re also very weird, surreal, and dark.”
Brito, who has been passionate about fashion her whole life, remembers obsessively drawing princesses with puff sleeves during those summers. Using a children’s easel with the paper roll, she would drag the paper roll across the floor to create long skirts for her dresses. As Brito painted in her home studio during the pandemic, these memories flooded back, resurfacing in and rearranging her compositions, as she moved from sketches to acrylic compositions.
Posting these early-pandemic paintings to social media, Brito quickly gained attention, first earning invitations to online exhibitions, and ultimately shows with galleries including La Causa in Madrid, Huxley Parlor in London, and Nicodim.
“Rachel Keller from Nicodim reached out to me via Instagram DM, which feels so of our time. We did a little virtual studio visit. At that point, I had been showing for maybe six months at that point,” she explained. “It was all unfamiliar. How does a virtual studio visit work? And oh my god, is it embarrassing that I’m painting in this tiny little room? But it was a really lovely chat and I was invited to a group show she was curating. Things moved from there.”
Galleries weren’t the only ones taking note of Brito’s work. She also received a DM from French fashion house Nina Ricci, asking about the possibility of a collaboration. “At first, I wasn’t sure it was real!” said Brito, “The message said that they’d seen my paintings and the creative director, Harris Reed, was interested in talking.”
In its earliest conception, the collaboration had centered on a postcard series to accompany e-commerce purchases but evolved into a commission to paint three works that recontextualized the house’s historic symbols of apples, flowers, and doves, which ultimately found their way onto runway prints earlier this year. “Harris decided to adapt the paintings onto fabric, which was a surreal, crazy moment, seeing them come down the runway,” Brito effused.
Indeed, fashion history and design are integral to understanding Brito’s work. In the lead-up to the exhibition at Nicodim in June, the artist immersed herself in the world of theater set design, in influential films including The Red Shoes (1948) and Donkey Skin (1970), as well as ballet and operatic performances of Giselle and The Magic Flute. Before she set about sketching the exhibition’s symbolic gloves, she explored the costume archives of the V&A Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I like gloves too because they’re both concealing and revealing. Gloves have a sensual element. It’s interesting for a clothing item to be so linked to sensuality when it covers so much,” Brito noted.
Soon, Brito will be gearing up for a presentation with Nicodim Gallery at the Armory Show this September, which will include three new paintings, and then a spring New York exhibition with the gallery in the spring of 2024.
She’s spending the summer in Europe and letting her mind percolate on some new ideas. “There are these breadcrumbs of interests I’m starting to follow,” she said, reminding me of Hansel and Gretel. Her grandmother’s neighbor is a marionette maker and she’s been invited for a visit. She also mentioned recently seeing a work in a museum by the mystic Medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, and that she was now planning a day trip to the city of Bingen for research.
“Sometimes it all comes together. My grandmother’s neighbor has always been there. Bingen has always been there,” she said, “But now, suddenly, it’s come alive to me.”