On the Boundary of Definitions 

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

By Eduardo Serrano. From revista Semana, september 3, 1996


1996. Collage sobre papel. 55 x 113 cm.

Los cincuenta caminos de la vida (The Fifty Paths of Life). 1996. Collage on paper. 55 x 113 cm



The exhibition presented by Alvaro Barrios at the Galeria Garcés Velásquez is one of the most original displays seen in recent times. It reveals the continuous renewal that has taken place in the works of this artist from the coastal region of Colombia. This artist has also played a key role in the development of Colombian visual arts in recent decades.


Barrios surprised the critics in the late sixties with his skillful drawings. Drawings that led Marta Traba to consider that awarding him the third place prize in his first display at the Salón Nacional in 1969 was unfair, and that despite his young age he deserved the first prize. Since then, however, this artist began to struggle against his own innate skill, against the eloquence of his strokes and his inclination towards aesthetics, thus loading his works with increasingly bold concepts.


He first ventured into visceral art and, soon after, began to “build” three-dimensional drawings, which he placed in boxes. This questioned the traditional two-dimensionality of the medium, and challenged its orthodoxy, as threads, cotton, frost, and small dolls and plastic animals inhabited the spaces depicting scenes related to fairy tales, esotericism and science fiction. Additionally, Barrios made his Popular Prints in newspapers and also built environmental spaces. If we take all of this into account, then it is perfectly clear that his work stands on the boundary of definitions, as it should be to prevail from the dictatorship of style.


What is remarkable, however, is that once modernism came to its end and the pillars of its avant-garde were challenged, the works of Barrios did not become obsolete like the works of many other artists did, and this happened even to artists from later generations. Barrios’ works, on the contrary, fit perfectly into the parameters of more recent art, and he did not even change the arguments, or modify his goals. The great influence exercised by Marcel Duchamp and Surrealism was not in vain. Thanks to its dependence from the unconscious and its contempt for concepts that were definitive for modernity -namely logic, purity, and development-Surrealism is the only modern movement that has survived the end of its era. Marcel Duchamp, for his part, was the great prophet who buried style and played a key role in the birth of the art of ideas.


The exhibition is called “Los cincuenta caminos de la vida” (The fifty paths of life) and consists of collages involving artistic themes, cheesy illustrations and comic strips (as a starting point for meditation). They are loaded with humor and suggestions that are not always pleasant. The background is a reproduction of a poster; it is a landscape painted in 1892 by Master Francisco Antonio Cano. However, its implications and character change based on the cruelty, irony, or fantasy of the situations that Barrios assigns to it.


Each collage depicts one or more dreams. Sometimes, they are dramatic dreams, like the one in which a bald Superman is seen overwhelmed by kryptonite while raising a hand that is stigmatized as a sign of premonition. Sometimes the dreams are poetic: one of them depicts a stunned young man seduced by a constellation of women’s shoes. Another dream is apocalyptic: we see a herd of dinosaurs crushing Michelangelo’s David and Cano’s brushstrokes.


The collages’ frames hold the names of the artists who have stimulated Barrios’ reasoning (Magritte, Warhol, Beuys, Jeff Koons), and elaborate texts complementing the images’ meaning by making them more ambiguous, ironic, poetic, or even turning them into more biting artistic comments. In one of these pieces, the tender little indigenous girls painted by Diego Rivera are sitting meekly before the landscape and evoke their respective dreams. One of such dreams belongs to Picasso’s rose period and involves marrying a good man from the blue period, and having many children from the Cubist era. This is a harsh comment if one compares the contributions of Picasso and Rivera and remembers that the former had a great influence on the latter.


In another landscape, (this time populated by Botero’s sculptures) one of the girls dreams that five thousand years have passed and that art is already a thing of the past. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is now an auto repair shop and Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Venice lies at the bottom of the Grand Canal, which was permanently frozen by a rich man who had bought the city. Obviously this premonition was stimulated by the arbitrariness of the art trade and the collapse of modernity’s values.


Barrios cannot avoid the requirements of aesthetics and therefore his collages exhibit as much neatness and accuracy as their boxes. This demonstrates that his skill with the scissors is as good as his skill with pen and ink. The artist, however, no longer struggles against this; he rather takes advantage of his skills and the erudition and intellectual sophistication of his work. In one of these collages Barrios offered to make dreams according to the needs of all those who cannot dream. And judging by the variety, subtlety, and freedom of this exhibition, it is not a difficult task for him.