Álvaro Barrios: Portrait of the Artist as a Medium

Álvaro Barrios: The Hierophant of Barranquilla
Pam Grossman

“[The experience of a work of art is] always based on two poles, the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from that bipolar action gives birth to something – like electricity.”

Marcel Duchamp to Calvin Tomkins, 1964[1]

The presence of occult subject matter in Modern Art can be traced back to the French Symbolists of the 19th century who used imagery to represent felt experiences and to attempt contact with the uncanny Other.  This esoteric flame has continued to be fanned by artists since, as evidenced by the Abstract, Surrealist, Abstract Expressionism, Psychedelic, Conceptual, and Neo-Pagan movements that have emerged over the last 150 years.  But few have burned as incandescently as Colombia’s Álvaro Barrios, whose magically-minded works are being celebrated in this stateside exhibition.

When one considers that the word occult means “hidden,” one might argue that all art making falls under this category: after all, creativity is an action that renders the invisible visible.  The creator plumbs the depths of interior dreamscapes or communes with unseen exterior entities in order catalyze aesthetic activity intended to transform both himself and the viewer.  In this model, the artist is a conjuror then, casting visual spells and ushering forth new ways of viewing the world and one’s place in it.  

As such, Barrios is a master magician, deftly using the symbolic language of magic as a bridge between the material and the spiritual, and enhancing it with his own distinct craftsmanship and wit. Throughout this exhibition, we can see his fascination with the occult evolve over decades.  When he was a student he realized that he had, as he puts it, “… spiritualist capabilities, but in order to develop them it was necessary to assume an attitude of great internal respect.” Many of these works are a record of a lifetime of experiments with extra-sensory perception, or are otherwise the resulting evidence of his disciplined ritual practice.  Approaching a Barrios piece is an exercise in double-consciousness then: one bears witness to his exploration of the role of the artist as a medium or mage, while simultaneously being implicated in this aetheric energy exchange between the maker and the mystical.  We look, and in looking, become linked to these subtle forces ourselves.

In Barrios’ personal constellation, alchemy, Tarot, Spiritualism, and Mesmerism rub shoulders with Catholic iconography and his own artistic patron saints. His devotion to materials and technique is equally omnivorous, with photography, drawing, sculpture, and installation all used here as conduits for the communication with (or from) the spiritual realm.  The shared common denominator is, of course, the artist himself, an axis upon which this otherworld turns.

And revolution is a powerful theme throughout the show. We see The Wheel of Universal Compensation (1986/2013), his reworking of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) readymade, standing like a totem for Barrios’ entire oeuvre and signifying both homage paid to his own magico-artistic lineage and an audacious gesture of authorship transference.  He is bold enough to borrow signifiers from ancient sacred systems and Modern Art fetishes alike, and spin them into something entirely his own.  Circular meditations appear several more times in his work. An earlier piece,

Portrait of the Artist as a Medium (1974/2013), shows the artist mid-trance, receiving the message, “This is the Universe / You are a line in the Universe / You are a soul in the Universe / The Universe is a Soul within you / This is the Mystery,” which he then dutifully transcribed in a nested mandala diagram below that’s reminiscent of Robert Fludd’s cosmological drawings.  This same phrase comes around again as seen written in the shadow cast by his bicycle wheel piece.

The appearance of lunar imagery throughout the exhibition is yet another nod to the cyclical nature of consciousness and the metamorphosis that art can bring. The Moon (2013) is a second offering on the altar of Duchamp.  It is of course a reinterpretation of his infamous Fountain readymade of 1917.  Nearly a century later, it is now plated in silver and hanging from the ceiling, a magic trick further transmuting the sacred into the profane and back again.  We then see this object do another turn in Saint Sebastian with Child (2013), this time becoming the baby cradled in Saint Sebastian’s arms - a homoerotic twist on the Madonna and child.  One more layer of visual puns is revealed when one realizes that Colombia’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquirá, is shown standing on a crescent moon.  This series is stratified with allegory, both historical and autobiographical.  This figure is a stand-in for the artist: a mother of creation and a father of trickery at once.

Magical tradition posits that the most powerful ritual tools are the ones the magician makes himself.  Here we see Barrios’ internalization of this belief, as several of the exhibitions’ works are divinatory or supernatural objects created with the artist’s own hand.  His Vampire Hunting Kit (2016) is an assemblage of items he sourced himself in order to reinvent similar kits of 19th century, and though with the updated elements including binoculars and a hammer, one gets the sense that the vampires in question of Barrios’ version are those that dwell in his own psyche.  His Two Glasses of Magnetized Water (1974/2016) have been charged with the artist’s own energetic field.  Likewise, his hand-drawn and colored (and often renamed) Tarot cards from 1979 see him embellishing the usual major arcana cards with personal elements, including the pink triangle of LGBTQ culture painted behind the Hanged Man card, here titled “El Sacrificio” (The Sacrifice).  This approach was key because, in the artist’s own words, “I found that for me it was very important to have a true empathy with the images.”  Barrios has elevated them from mere facsimiles to intimate and active vehicles for transcendence.

Occult interests are often marginalized, so it’s no surprise that those who are attracted to it often dwell on the fringes themselves.  As a gay artist living in Colombia, one can imagine why Barrios may have resonated with this material throughout his life.  Some of his most arresting work is seen in the series The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1979/2013), another reinterpretation of the martyred saint and gay cultural icon.  Here we see several versions of Sebastian: rather than being shot through with the usual arrows, he is covered in irons, gauze, flowers.  It’s an arresting dichotomy of agony and ecstasy, eroticism and reverence.  Barrios has crafted a sensual, surrealist interpretation of suffering, a view of religion from the outside-looking-askew.

It’s this irreverence that makes Barrio’s work so, well, reverential.  It reminds us of the fact that the most powerful gods, pan-culturally, have often been tricksters.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Hermes, the wing-footed, Greek messenger god of liminality, communication, and magic.  In Alexandrian times he later morphed into Hermes Trismegistus: a hybrid with the Egyptian god Thoth, and the alleged author of Corpus Hermetica.  One text from these writings is the famous Emerald Tablet - the source of the maxim “as above, so below.”  And that phrase may as well be the motto for Barrios’ work, for whatever strange beauty meets the viewer’s eye has analogous depths of meaning beneath the surface.

Circling back to art history’s most famous trickster, the exhibition’s moving series Prayer in the Museum (1983/2013), is a photographic documentation of a clandestine pilgrimage taken by Barrios to the Philadelphia Museum in order to commune with Duchamp’s spirit.  Here, he literally embodied his source of inspiration, donning the same star-shaped tonsure shaved into his hair that Duchamp wore in the iconic photograph taken of him by Man Ray in 1919.  We see Barrios as a monk, a Hermesian hermit, praying in front of the holy relics of his own Saint of Sacrilege. 

When asked how he would improve life, Duchamp said he wished it had “more imagination, more leeway, more lack of seriousness, more play...”[2] Through his own spiritual art workings, Barrios has conjured into reality this mischievous, marvelous dream.  It is a potent gift: we as viewers are reminded that by venturing into our own occult selves, we, too, may find such freedom and inner fire.

[1] Tomkins, C. (2013). Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews. Brooklyn, NY: Badlands Unlimited.

[2] Ibid.