“The Children’s Crusade,” María Berrío’s new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, sets vibrant figuration against a grim premise. Its title name checks a hazy episode from early 13th-century folkore, where, legend has it, hordes of young people set out from Europe to reclaim Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. If they did, they never arrived, which might be why the whole thing is a bit of a mystery. But Berrío is less concerned with righteous cause than she is with the end goal of movement to a promised land.
Those of us who spend too much time on Twitter (or even a little, which is really all it takes) might be surprised to discover the promised land in Berrío’s work mostly is the United States, with maybe a handful of European countries thrown in. “Oda a la Esperanza (Ode to Hope),” 2019, a broad canvas peopled with eight young girls staring impassively at the viewer, greets you at the show’s entrance. It was prompted by the family separation policies of the Trump administration that sent parents and children to different detention facilities as they crossed the border from Mexico illegally.
The girls in the painting are arrayed in bright finery on a patchwork floor of opaque, pastel-colored tiles. The work, undeniably beautiful, is resonantly ambiguous and otherworldly; they wait, but for what? Several clutch birds in their hands, a little symbolist gesture, maybe, of liberty not yet won. The space they occupy is a space in-between, a liminal zone, with the unknown ahead still preferable to the trauma behind.
Berrío was born in Colombia and immigrated to the United States with her family as a teen. Her own passage was far less fraught than those she depicts — the family traveled official channels, eventually gaining US citizenship, curator Ruth Erickson told me — but her work conveys sympathy pains of displacement for those not so lucky.
Some of the pieces here are built from photographs, others from imaginative recesses of Berrío’s mind; all convey a dreaminess that flirts with nightmare. “Ozymandias,” from 2022, of a young boy prone on the sand, could as easily be a child lolling on a beach as lying crumpled in exhaustion traversing unforgiving desert en route to the border. “Under Thatch and Autumn Star,” 2022, of three kids snoozing together on a bed, could be the casual play of a sleepover, or the cramped confines of a detention center.
The ambiguity is the point: Berrío’s works are powerfully alluring, both in craft and sentiment: They ache with a desire for childhood to be kind and gentle, as childhood should be. Reality, often, is not so ideal. Confronted with that duality, the works are a soft and somber evocation of the cruelty of the world.
Berrío writes at length on each of her 10 pieces here in accompanying wall text, often linking them to myth and circumstance. “Ozymandias” prompts a connection to the Egyptian boy king whose empire vanished beneath the sands. She conflates “Las Hijas de la Montaña” (Children of the Mountain),” 2023, both with broader ideas of pilgrimage and specifically the Darién Gap, a dangerous mountain pass thick with jungle that connects South and Central America that thousands of migrants traveling on foot to the United States have no choice but to traverse. The work’s oppressive stone face shoves a crowd of women claustrophobically into the foreground; they seem vulnerable and exposed.
I wondered if Berrío choosing to be so explicit runs the danger of closing the works off to broader readings. An artist’s intention should have an active negotiation with the viewer’s experience, each as unique as the person viewing it. But that’s a small complaint. Berrío’s pieces are masterfully evocative, each of them a discreet emotional world.
That’s owed in part to a technique that must be hers alone: Dissatisfied with painting, Berrío recently told me at the ICA, she started several years ago to build her pieces from colored Japanese paper. Look closely and you’ll see every fold of fabric, every shadow, every stripe or feather or stone is an individually clipped fragment; only faces and flesh are painted. The technique imbues each piece with the material presence of unimaginable effort; every inch is labored over, constructed with intent. It made me think of the artist dwelling so deeply in each work as to almost be living within them.
It helps to explain why each piece is so radiantly emotive. In “The Conference of the Sparrows,” 2023, a slim lifeboat seen from the stern is adrift in a pallid sea fashioned from big bolts of paper with roughly-torn edges; perched inside, an angel with fiery wings presides over a ragged family cut adrift. “The Ascension,” 2023, with its flurry of birds in the foreground, crackles with anxious energy as a child is pulled from muddy waters below.
Berrío’s figures are universally painted with blank expressions that sever them from lived experience; they often feel more like avatars for broader themes than people in places. The family in the boat could be braving waters off Cuba or Syria; the child in the water might have been swept away by the Rio Grande, or any number of waters anywhere that keep migrants at bay. It’s a powerful trope for a trauma far greater than any single frame could contain, and a nightmare for far too many children that’s agonizingly real.
MARÍA BERRÍO: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. Through Aug. 6 617-478-3100, icaboston.org