Rare, precious and beautiful

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

By Eduardo Serrano. From Magazín Dominical, El Espectador, may 25, 1986


1983. Acuarela sobre papel. (s.d.)

Llegada de una obra de Marcel Duchamp a Venecia (Arrival of a Work by Marcel Duchamp to Venice). 1983. Watercolor on paper. [dimensions unknown]

Álvaro Barrios’s pieces are among the most successful and well known works of Colombian art. His works combine a decidedly experimental energy with a serene and definitely educated attitude. Each of the stages of his works manifests some kind of penchant for different interests-for example, a preference for the subtlety of erudite references in the history of art, another preference for the risk of having varied technical approaches, as well as the intensity of Neofiguration, and yet another preference for pop’s bizarreness and the iconoclastic and reflexive nature of conceptualism. Despite this, each of these interests has taken a peculiar form, integrating itself into a personal, unmistakable language in which the neatness of his realizations, the humor, and the sharpness of his lucubrations on the concept of art are equally important. But Barrios is also one of the most coherent and lucid artists in expressing his ideas, and it is thus fair to him and to the public that, on the occasion of this retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno (Bogota), the artist himself explains the reasons behind his works and sheds light on some of the questions raised by his works and his attitude.


E.S. Álvaro, how and when did you discover your artistic vocation?
A.B. When I was eight, my father wanted me to study music, but this ambition was frustrating, so I enrolled in the Artes Plasticas en la Escuela de Bellas Artes in Barranquilla to study Visual Arts. I never understood the meaning of the words visual arts, not even now. But the word vocation was familiar to me, since I heard it frequently at the Hermanos Cristianos school, where it was associated with God’s call to priesthood, or something along those lines. So, my vocation as an artist manifested in elementary school and grew stronger during math class, where I would always make drawings on the graph notebooks. Later came the wish to start a career in art, which is something really different. That happened around 1964.


E.S. It has been said that drawing directly testifies to the artist’s exploratory and impulsive attitudes, and that it is therefore the most intimate means for artistic work. Do you agree with that view?
A.B. From a conventional standpoint it is true that drawing can be considered an intimate manner for artistic expression. But I believe that life itself is the most direct means between the artist and the creative act. Life, with its continuous transformations, is in itself creative and dynamic; the artist only needs to be in harmony with his own life in order to be always new. But this, although apparently obvious, is not an easy achievement for an artist, especially because art and life, more often that one would believe, follow separate paths. It is in such cases where vacuous, meaningless art is produced.


E.S. What is the direct relationship between your life and your works?
A.B. I was fortunate to be able to bring along games from my childhood when I started walking the path of art. Only now I am truly aware of the fact that all of my pastimes from childhood appeared at that time as revelations, as signs of a path to follow in life. Although, as a child, I knew that those games also had other unknown dimensions and that the task of my life would be to follow their clues as they arose. Hence, I consider my works to be autobiographical, with only one difficulty: I must transcend all the personal elements that others might find unimportant.


E.S. How were those games, for example?
A.B. Before that, I want to tell you this: when I read in the biography of Lewis Carroll that he had his house full of dolls in order to have his house full of girls and that when those girls grew up he forgot them, even if the same dolls were still on the shelves waiting for new girls who later would also leave his life, I understand that childhood was his muse for writing works such as Alice in Wonderland. Something similar happened to me, but with other fetishes. The world of comic strips, for example, was one of two spiritual states that greedily seized all of my childhood, along with religious matters. Just as I created imaginary stories with angels, archangels, stairs going up to heaven, etc., the heroes of the comic strips convinced me of their existence, especially those that grew old and died in a time span similar to that of our lives. I then appropriated those worlds. I invented magic lanterns to look at the comic strips -some had been created and drawn by me-as in a film. I think this is also the root of my interest in film.


E.S. Then, do you think that these have been the strongest influences on your production?
A.B. Yes. You once said that my works were a combination of sacred history, art history, and science fiction. That is true. But the intellectual influence on my works comes from the theory of art, some movements, and the views of certain artists.


E.S. It has been said that your works have an oneiric, dreamy quality. How surrealist are they?
A.B. My first contact with surrealism was through a textbook, without pictures, about the philosophy of that movement. I think that it somehow set the direction of my works in a conceptual sense. But no particular work influenced me formally. For example, neither Cornell, nor Lichtenstein, nor Duchamp. However, Duchamp’s and Magritte’s theories did obviously influence me. For me it was final when I read that the rider who rode through a forest in an apparently academic painting by Magritte was the surreal character of the work simply because he was lost. On another occasion he said that surrealism was not a fish placed in a birdcage, but rather putting an egg in a birdcage. So in this sense, I had a definitive influence from Surrealism.


E.S. In recent years you have worked with the theme of Duchamp. Why exactly Marcel Duchamp?
A.B. Marcel Duchamp was, in appearance, another name in the long list of those who have inspired, throughout all my works, my interest in making art about art. It is also the most difficult one, and therefore a challenge that I had to face. The attraction that Duchamp exerts on me does not lie only in my belief that he is the most important artist of this century, but also in that he is, in fact, an esoteric artist, an alchemist who found the philosopher’s stone by following a path that I too am interested in experimenting on.


E.S. Given the continuous references in your works to Dada, Surrealism, Pre-raphaelism, and Symbolism, to what extent could it be argued that these references are conditioned by your passion for occultism and other esoteric doctrines?
A.B. Art, in the first place, was my first direct contact with my truly inner world. There I was convinced that this inner realm exists, and that I was part of it. I had a close relationship with conventional religion during my early education; it was something like the monologue of one who expects to be heard from the other side. Art allowed me to have my first dialogue with the inner realm. Later on came the talks with it through occultism, something that I did not seek purposely but that came, among other things, as something totally divorced from fantasy. But of course, some artistic movements evoke a certain fascination on me due to their links to the esoteric, especially if such movements are expressed figuratively, telling slightly undecipherable stories. Such is in the case with the movements you mention, although there are abstract works which also interest me in this sense, for example, Kandinsky’s works, he is an artist with training in theosophy.


E.S. OK. Your works, in turn, have influenced the production of other artists. Which ones?
A.B. That is uncertain to me because I visualize my influence on others in the same way I was influenced by others, that is, in an ideological, non-formal sense. I am amazed when somebody approaches me and tells me that my works transmit much more than meets the eye. Some even have told me of lives that have been changed by my works, they also speak of the glorification it causes within some people, and this has in no way filled me with conceit because, on the one hand, I refuse to believe it and, on the other hand, I am of the belief that this is not me, I am simply a medium, perhaps the most intimate medium, but I am truly the medium of another driving force which originates in all art and in all the artists. As for the formal influence that my works have on the works of other artists, the few times I’ve noticed-I do not remember who I noticed-I had the feeling that I was seeing something like a dress without a body, without the dynamics of that inner life that is so different and personal for each artist.


E.S. If we observe, for example, the emphasis put on the craft of some of your works and the scorn for it in others, or if we consider the decorative nature of some of your works, and the anti-ornamental focus of others, then would it be correct to speak of a dichotomy between the conceptual and the, let’s say, more traditional sides of your work?
A.B. Not at all, as the elements that confer unity to my works are present both in my conceptual works of the period devoted to Marcel Duchamp, and in the works done with traditional methods such as drawing and painting. And those elements could be mystery, fantasy, an interest in Western culture, for esotericism, etc. For example, any of the texts entitled “Dreams about Marcel Duchamp” have the same amount of those elements as the watercolors with fantasies about Canaletto, Venice and Duchamp. My Gran Vidrio (Large Glass) is art about art because of Duchamp and because it contains a retrospective synthesis of my works since 1964. The concept of the work entitled Raros, preciosos y bellos (Rare, Precious, and Beautiful) has the same dose of nostalgia shared by many of my drawings, and in general there is a romantic view, in the best sense of this term, consistent with all my works that are apparently conventional. Moreover, creating non-traditional art using traditional resources is for me a paradox that I always try to approach. And finally, a very important point in the dichotomy that you mention was the disdain for style, that kind of obligation that artists are self-imposing, I do not know for what purpose they do this; the object is to not fall into repetition, into exhaustion.


E.S. It is well known that you personally, and your works, have played an important role in the artistic development of Barranquilla. Do you think that artists have social responsibilities regarding the diffusion of the artistic gospel?
A.B. I think it is an artist’s duty to communicate, since without this requirement, art, being a phenomenon produced within society, could not perform its function. Its function is to reach the inner realm of others, make them somehow better and also change the society, which in turn influences art. I see it, not as a vicious circle, but as an evolutionary spiral, because artists and society must go hand in hand toward what is more and what is better, correcting the past and learning from it.


E.S. Do you think your art is Colombian art?
A.B. Being a Colombian who was born on the seashore means that you can still hear the sounds of the sea if you put a seashell on your ear when you are in the mountains. But for a Nordic, it would be a mere superstition. When I was a child, I painted precious watercolors with Italian themes that I had seen in popular reproductions. Now my watercolors with themes by Canaletto are the same, that is, they are based on Colombian Canalettos printed in Cali and drawn by me in my Barranquilla studio. As you can see, this has nothing to do with Italy. All the happenings surrounding my work have taken place in Colombia. Back when I was twenty, my disappointment was great when I saw the St. Peter Square personally. It was much smaller than the one I painted when I was ten…it was also much less beautiful. Then I was convinced that my art is Colombian, even though it sometimes is otherworldly.