Latinamerican Art

Álvaro Barrios (born 1945, lives and works in Barranquilla, Colombia)

The second time I went to Colombia, curator María Belén Sáez de Ibarra drew my attention to Álvaro Barrios. Soon after, I travelled to his hometown, Barranquilla, to take a closer look at his work…

Oración en el museo, 1983/2008, Photography, 100,6 x 65,8 cm, Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich

Álvaro Barrios is quite unpretentious; comments or utterances about his own artworks have to be squeezed out of him like blood from a stone. Although he belongs to the Colombian conceptual bedrock, his work is full of refreshing and heart-warming esprit, bubbling with vigor, and offering plenty of highly welcome occasions for wry amusement over the artworld, which he so aptly scrutinizes. Below, I present a text I wrote about him in 2015 with regards to one of his major works, “Sueños con Marcel Duchamp” (Dreams About Marcel Duchamp): 

“For many years, Marcel Duchamp has been stalking Alvaro Barrios in his dreams, or is it Barrios who is chasing Duchamp? Contours fade in dreams…

What is clear, in any case, is that since 1978 Barrios has written 97 short texts in the form of popular prints, his “Sueños con Marcel Duchamp,” for publication in the press. They emulate a grade-school student’s notebook; on the left page there is always the same photographic black-and-white portrait of Marcel Duchamp in profile; on the right page, Barrios has traced neat parallel lines and filled them with brief descriptions of his dreams, written in a meticulous calligraphy. Back in the day, our grade school teacher would have called it “good handwriting”. Below the lines, we see the same signature, underlined and written with an ingenuous lettering: “Álvaro Barrios”.

Without thinking too much about it, we embrace our dream worlds as a necessary parallel reality. Only in the most exceptional cases do we remember our dreams. And even more exceptionally do our dreams come true; unlike Barrios, for whom dreams are like a conceptual reservoir from where he regularly creates autonomous works. First, he dreams them and then produces them: “Dreams about Marcel Duchamp” is like an incubator between the world of dreams and a possible reality. Barrios operates and experiments on the border between a fantastic imagination and its concretion. Beyond the usual logic, he surrenders to the subconscious and the seemingly absurd. He approaches his “Dreams” with a very delicate hidden meaning and an exquisitely chosen humor. And since he doesn’t go for the “dream of reason,” neither does he produce monsters. Rather he delights in his poetic and graceful play with time and space, where nothing is impossible in principle. Barrios elegantly juggles the works and values of art history; anarchic and utterly disrespectful, he lunges at all sorts of subjects and clothes them in irony and incongruity. In his own way, Barrios is much more Dadá than Duchamp himself, by way of his ingenious dream games, which are full of inverted (dream) logic and paradoxical absurdity; at the same time, they conjure up profoundly poetic images or become aphorisms that slide towards the philosophical. 

In a profoundly human way, Álvaro Barrios is a kind of ground pole for the often-misunderstood Marcel Duchamp. On the one hand, he laughs at all the adoration and unconditional abandon, at an almost divine veneration; and on the other hand, he himself surrenders to a self-ironic and joyfully loving homage to Duchamp. He gives the “great master” his undisputed and deserving importance, but does so by endlessly mocking his fellow artists’ many “conceptualist” misinterpretations. Thus, Barrios himself approaches Duchamp’s work congenially; this, in the long run, is immensely valuable precisely because it evades a univocal interpretation. His paraphrases of Duchamp’s work reveal the absolute relativity of all things; an approach to Duchamp that few artists have achieved without sacrificing their autonomy.

It is superfluous and daring to try to select the best and most important work from an artistic corpus. But in this case, I dare say that the “Dreams”—in all their lightness, their weightless volatility, and their poetic elegance—constitute an iconic ensemble in the creation of Álvaro Barrios, as well as the central foundation of his thought and action.”

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