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Johan Barrios - Barely There

Words:

Edd Norval
August 22, 2018

Johan Barrios' intimate charcoal portraits show the ephemeral nature of his subjects. The living seem entirely alive, yet ghostly in their impermanence. The predominantly monochromatic works are imbued with a dreamlike quality - not asleep, not awake, all there, yet barely there at all.

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Usually the eye is drawn to the face in a portrait, it's often the most emotive part. Barrios however regularly obscures the face of his subjects. They're either cut in half, looking in another direction or covered by a pillow or a sheet. They stand with their arms by their sides, shy and withdrawn, not giving anything away.


People are drawn to that which they do not fully know, see or understand. All three of these things are presented in his work. First, we do not know what is happening. We're presented with a snapshot of a character that seems to be either acting or reacting in a certain way, but we see this without any context, without any source of provocation to explain their behaviour.


Secondly, we can't even see the whole thing. Characters are being smothered by pillows or covered with sheet. Whose hand is straying into the picture with the pillow? Why are they throwing the sheet onto themselves? Without a background, without any real story - they just float there in a sort of white-light purgatory remiss of any interaction. This forces us to engage directly and meaningfully with the lead figure. They require all of our time and to understand what we are looking at. If we give them this, it is worthwhile.

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Finally - the understanding. Although possibly absent initially, we have two options. We can either not understand and instead feel. Their sadness, melancholy and perceived isolation is palpable. They're lonely people that seem to teeter on the brink of breakdown, one wrong word away from momentary madness. If we do decide to persevere and understand, then as previously mentioned, we must dedicate time to them. It's when we engage and in a sense interact with the portraits that we can scratch the surface and get to the root of their being.


By having them there - aimless, the onus is on us to point them in the right direction. It allows us to elevate ourselves from idle viewer to engaged participant. From onlooker to therapist, passerby to helping hand. In the four sides of the canvas, they levitate. Their lightness is shrouded with darkness and the subtle strength of the monochromatic palette is overwhelmingly inviting.


It's also possible that, on the flip-side of being a helper for them, we can relate to how they feel. How they are acting might be exactly how we'd like to. If you come across the work of Barrios at the right time in your life, if you feel close to them, then rest assured you are no longer alone. Through the shared suffered of self and subject, you're acknowledging that it's alright to be consumed by the same thing that grips them.

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Colombian born Barrios is fascinated by the way light interacts with things. Colombia is a country that is relatively devoid of seasons. There's not much of a summer and not much of a winter. It's always and never light, always and never dark. Light's relationship with people and places is part and parcel of coming from that part of the world, even if it lies mainly dormant in the populations psyche. Barrios has chosen to explore this aspect of his developmental years. By painting the subtly shaded figures, he's understanding the complex relationship between light and dark and the symbolic inferences that they have.


Based on his own photography, the influence of black-and-white shooting is evident. Incorporating light and fascinated by the lighting disruptions of older photographs, his paintings are wilfully imperfect. There are blotches and blobs, faultlines and uneven exposure.


Johan Barrios has built his own method of visually exploring the inner psychological states of his subjects through intelligent uses of extra objects and the way the scene is staged. His protagonists balance oddly on chairs or sit back-to-back revealing a paranormal aura. Again, it's the astute integration of surreal elements. With charcoal and oil, Barrios is weaving a magical narrative of semi-staged moments in peoples lives. They're deeply symbolic and highly emotionally charged. If you spend too much time with them you'll either end up trying to help the person, or realise that it is you who, through your ability to relate, could use someone's help.

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