The Fifty Paths of Life

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

By Alberto Sierra Maya. From Lecturas Dominicales, El Tiempo, september 1, 1996


1995. Collage y título pintado al óleo sobre el marco de madera. 52 x 94 cm.

Clarividencia (Clairvoyance). 1995. Collage on paper and title painted in oil on wood frame. 52 x 94 cm


In his recent exhibition, Álvaro Barrios returns to using collage and the comic strips theme, a symbiosis of his first exhibitions from the 1960s. Barrios knew collage thanks to the works of Max Ernst, whose work he had first contact with through reproductions in books. But pop art and Lichtenstein’s works, to which critics mistakenly ascribed a deep influence on his works, were undoubtedly unknown to him. His interest in comic strips goes back to his adolescence, which was marked by games in which he used a rudimentary magic lantern he developed himself (a cardboard box in which he rolled up hand-colored comic strips taken from newspapers). This lantern allowed him to establish an imaginative parallel between graphic stories and cinema. Álvaro Barrios’ manual dexterity to cut out, paste, and juxtapose images to build three-dimensional spaces also comes from his childhood, a time in which he was interested in the cut-and-assemble shapes used in the arts and crafts class in his elementary school. He managed to perfect this ability long before being considered a professional artist. If we couple this ability with the fact that he is a draftsman, a phenomenon that emerged-as it does in all draftsmen-from a spontaneous and secret junction between the artist’s mind and his hand, we obtain his most intimate and sometimes unclassifiable works. One could say that Barrios’ childhood game, which he has extended to the present, is enigmatic enough to isolate his works from shallowness or entertainment. His youthful collages transcended, by far, the ones created by those authors that Marta Traba once called “simple adapters of resources” **, at a time in which this technique was frequently used to conceal a lack of talent or the vacant proposals. The magic of his current collages lies in the stimulating situations they evoke and its power to summon fantastic and creative ideas.


Like in his series entitled Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about Marcel Duchamp) from the 1980s, the collages entitled Los cincuenta caminos de la vida (The Fifty Paths in Life) can be read as the pages of a diary permeated with a piece of his particular sense of humor, his interest in spirituality hidden in the symbols of the apparent world and the fiction that serves his strange poetic art. These collages can be regarded as a whole or as isolated pieces. Despite being two-dimensional pieces of art, in reality, they possess the presence of objects with great visual magnetism. The background landscape used by Álvaro Barrios to create them is a commercial lithographic reproduction of an oil painting by Francisco Antonio Cano from 1892. It is the first time that Barrios devotes himself to re-create the work of another Colombian artist. This fact could be the start of a cycle in which “the other national art” is the target of his fantasy. There is a coherent, albeit heterogeneous, trajectory from Duchamp to Cano. It features kitsch art, art about art, Surrealism, Pop, Conceptual art and many other paths which its eager traveler will surely take again, like a fish swimming in its element. The series’ title refers to the well-known metaphor that life is a path, or rather, many paths. The concepts that give the titles to each piece are written in oil on the frames, and constitute an invitation to meditatate, like open doors to new worlds. For Barrios, however, it is not just a “small path buried by the sands of time,” as Juan de Dios Filiberto would say, but rather, an idea closer to Gonzalo Arango’s phrase: “What matters is not the goal, which is ephemeral, but the path, which is eternal.”