Alvaro Barrios

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

By Gonzalo Arango. From revista Cromos No. 2564, november 21, 1966


2007. Acrílico sobre lienzo. 100 x 120 cm.

The Fourth Time. 2007. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm



A beach in La Boquilla, next to Cartagena. It was January, a burning January. I was feeling lonely, unhappy. I saw nobody, no friends, no women, no letters. From my wild beach I witnessed a hectic air traffic: swarms of jets in the sky left a luminous tremor, and the whistling cannon ball scared the gannets away. I was entertained by the sea with this innocent game between birds and steel angels. What a burning sun.


When I returned to my straw hut, Teresa Alegría handed me an envelope left by a “tourist”. It contained a greeting from some person wishing me happiness. The greeting was drawn with India ink. It had some strange, almost morbid, allegories which left a lasting impression on me. Next to the eccentric drawing was a signature: Álvaro Barrios.


I did not know who it was, I did not remember. But whoever made those “doodles” was truly an artist. I tried to write him. But it was impossible to do so in my current location. My soul had become rusty from so much joy. My brain, a kilogram of burning sand. And besides, I was eating three meals a day. The horror, I had turned into a perfect idiot. I put the message at the bottom of my suitcase, among some shells, and lost myself to my orgies of sun and stupidity. I forgot about it.


Some months later I found the yellowish envelope. It was time to return to matters of the spirit. I then wrote to the greeting’s author, and he replied. We became close friends via mail. And now, two years later, we met each other in Bogotá, on the day of his exhibition in the Colseguros Gallery, for which he asked me to deliver some words. I did so. That night, Álvaro Barrios had lived the first 20 years of his life.


Barrios was born in Barranquilla. He is one of the most enlightened artists of my generation. Not only as a painter, but also as a writer. But literature is for him a secondary form of communication. Simply another way of becoming aware of his values.


He possesses an unsuspected dynamism: he blends his pictorial activities with his architecture studies, and the latter with intellectual proselytism in the company of X-504 and Alberto Sierra. The three of them are the Nadaism triad from the Colombian coastal regions.


Barrios needed nobody to reach the position he now has in the Colombian visual arts. He relied solely on his talent and work. He started to distribute his beautiful horrors in foreign literature magazines, where they did not hesitate in accepting him as a discovery. The pages of El Corno Emplumado, the best poetry magazine in the Americas, are illustrated by the young Barrios, his drawings take turns with the brush of José Luis Cuevas, Pedro Alcántara and other master painters of our generation.


Despite his glaring youth, his fame is ahead of his age. We Nadaists are impatient, we have no time to wait, no time to trust in history’s verdict. Our generation lives in terror, with a bomb hovering over our hair. Our halo is the H-bomb’s mushroom cloud. We believe neither in immortality nor in history. Those are laughable hoaxes. We are not sure about anything, not even about today. Each step is for us a step toward the future, not knowing what lies beyond, not caring about what is to come. Our kingdom is the fugitive instant that we live exorbitantly, against the clock, against the sinister eternity. Our art proclaims the death of eternity. Death to eternity!


Living at maximum tension, creating vertiginously. Like the great Cassius Clay, we demand glory to be part of the present. We hate old age, decadence, and posthumous honors. Only this can explain why, at the dawn of conflict, Barrios has carried out countless exhibitions around the globe.


He won the second prize in the Homage to Dante contest. The prize is a trip to Italy. Barrios is leaving us. He is going for Rome for one year. He’ll live there, he’ll study painting and, if he can, he’ll triumph. Of course he can, he has a warrior spirit, a relative of the waves: always in motion. That is why he leaves, pushed by an inner force driving him to go far away to new conquests. He will return later, driven by the same oscillation force that will restore him back to our battle, to the heart of this beautiful generation of which he is one of the purest exponents.


It is Barrios who, with his aesthetic adventure, has come to disrupt the lethargy of eternity in which the truths of art lay. His works are a testimony to our age with an eccentric, violent realism that goes beyond appearance and to its most arcane secrets, with the courage and boldness of an art pirate. His brush, rather than drawing, gnaws reality in search of its essence.


Nothing and nobody will stop his adventure, his exploration of his sensitivity in search of new truths, new symbols. His paintings offer us a marvelous image of our time and its absurdities, its madness, its triviality, its nightmares, its sublime cheesiness, its black humor.


I do not need to be a prophet to foretell that his brush is giving birth to some of the most meaningful works in Colombian contemporary art. For the time being, I will just say that these drawings created by Barrios state a truth emerging from denial. The denial of a series of deceased values of our culture and ourselves; this denial assaults our sensitivity with the fury of its irreverent ugliness. In a sense, his painting is atheist, if this term can express the rebelliousness of an artist who conceives reality without the holy blessing of the eternal values and re-creates it through a subjectivity with no commitments with or servitude towards the object.


Barrios’ entrance into avant-garde art should be celebrated as the response to an aesthetic need of our generation. It should be celebrated in the same way we celebrate the apotheosis of combative aggressiveness in the social, aesthetic, and erotic domains represented by Norman Mejía, Pedro Alcántara and Bernardo Salcedo.


Nadaism demanded to be expressed in that annihilating plastic language which could be called the equivalent of its literary revolution. It is an aesthetics of defiance, aggression, ignominy, and violent forms and meanings opposing that aesthetics of bourgeois gardening that consists of transplanting beauty from root to crown, as if it were some decorative copulation between a flower and its vase in order to produce the ecstasy of souls and the eternal stupidity of nature.


Barrios, whose spirit is synchronized with the trends of his time, opened his inspiration to the influence of pop in his search for creative possibilities. His eagerness in all the domains in which the avant-garde is active is a revealing sign of his disobedience, of the crisis and uprising that characterizes a new spirit with a thirsting desire to recognize itself in its intimate revolutionary truths. He has created his paintings of chaos, reflecting his era with its terrors, its inventions, its myths, and its conflicts, expressing his crazy imagination and his relentless sense of marvelousness in each painting. He glorifies the everyday happenings at unusual proportions. He drowns in cheesiness. He denies the platonic and estimative virtues of bourgeois sentimentality, as well as the aesthetic idealisms of culture.


His paintings aim at shocking, appalling and removing that tragic remnant of recumbent conformism that rots the spirit. We are the artists of terror, just like there were Renaissance artists.


If Nadaism is not terror, then it will not be anything. Not only art: that marvelous and ephemeral flower that is born amongst explosions and death, like an homage to the world’s absurdness.


Barrios’s painting is disturbing, tender, terrifying: with astonishment, we see and recognize ourselves in it.


Q.- Álvaro Barrios: what is pop art?
A.- It is an artistic current that extracts from the everyday the elements for creating a piece of art. It grants aesthetic quality to what is trivial and superfluous by using the freedom to value that every artist possesses.


Q.- According to that, then do you consider yourself a member of the pop art movement?
A.- I am a Nadaist painter. But since pop is avant-garde art, I identify myself with it for reasons that are not related to reason at all, but rather to sensitivity or, as the surrealists used to say, a particular state of furor.


Q.- Is pop a popular art?
A.- One must not mistake pop for folklore. The latter IS popular. Pop, on the other hand, is serious. It has a subtle black humor intended to be understood only by a few. Even in its seriousness, pop is still trivial.


Q.- Is pop a fad, or is it the art of the future?
A.- I don’t care about the future of pop. I shall evolve towards other things long before pop disappears or degenerates into academism. I do not stay on one single idea, I seek what is yet to come, what does not yet exist.


Q.- What is the current source of inspiration for your work?
A.- To ennoble the comic strip as a new genre of art.


Q.- Do you seek to visually express a certain type of symbolism through that?
A.- To show the cruel and corny image of my time by combining tragedy and humor, satire and poetry.


Q.- Is there any social, revolutionary intention in your works?
A.- The revolutionary aspect of my works is visual, not social. It would be ridiculous to try to cause a revolution with a Nadaist or Surrealist painting.


Q.- Is there any surrealist influence in your paintings?
A.- The traces of Surrealism can be discerned in current art, this is also true for literature. It is a mark that identifies the art of this century. But it is not a Breton-style surrealism, it is pop-style and wears a 1966 outfit.


Q.- Which artists do you admire the most?
A.- Chester Gould, the author of Dick Tracy, the comic strip ridiculing the American lifestyle. In Colombia, of the newest artists, I admire: Norman Mejía, Pedro Alcántara, and Bernardo Salcedo, whom I consider the best artists of my generation.


Q.- What do you pop artists think of Alejandro Obregón?
A.- Obregón has been, is and will be a great painter. He will always be in motion, and in change.


Q.- You alternate painting with a secret passion: literature. What are your five unforgettable books?
A.- The little prince, Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, Kafka’s complete works and Barranquilla’s phonebook.


Q.- From what painter would you like to have a painting with a dedication?
A.- From Chagall, without dedication.


Q.- Right now, what is your greatest ambition?
A.- Learning how to play the trombofolino*.


Q.- What has been your greatest failure in life?
A.- Failing to learn how to play the trombofolino.


Q.- If you where reborn, what would you like to be?
A.- A trombofolinist.


Q.- Tell me something you are proud of about yourself?
A.- I am proud of being 20.


Q.- What do you think about jealousy?
A.- That it activates the functions of endocrine glands and reduces the exophthalmic goiter; besides, it regulates the thyroid gland.


Q.- Would you commit a crime of passion?
A.- Of course: I would take her neck with one hand. With the other one I would place rags in her mouth so she doesn’t scream. I would then take her to the basement and torture her for three days. After that, I would mince and eat her.


Q.- Who would you not like to meet in heaven?
A.- The Nadaists.


Q.- What will you do in the 21th century if you are still alive then?
A.- I’ll spend the money I earned in the 20th century.


Q.- What character would you have liked to make a portrait of?
A.- Jesus Christ, that great Jewish poet.


Q.- What is the value of solitude to you?
A.- A 30 Pesos woman.


Q.- For you, what is the importance of Nadaism?
A.- It is important because it groups the best of the Country’s intellectual and artistic avant-garde.


Q.- How would you define Nadaist painting?
A.- It is a particular visual, sadistic-morbid-masochistic delusion.


Q.- Why did you “convert” to Nadaism?
A.- Because I believed in nothing. Now I believe in myself.


Q.- What do you expect from Nadaism?
A.- Nothing. Nadaism is what expects something from me.


Q.- Quote an admirable phrase.
A.- “Álvaro Barrios is the best draftsman in the Americas”. It is signed by Marta Traba, Pablo Picasso, José Luis Cuevas and Pedro Alcántara. I must warn you that the phrase is from the future.


Q.- Álvaro Barrios: define him for the history of art.
A.- “Álvaro Barrios is defined as the blank space at the end of a letter”.



 *    Translator note: A instrument invented by Álvaro Barrios.