The Sculpture by Rafael Barrios
Several years ago I recall reading an art review in a formidable New York daily that pronounced – “Making sculpture can be anything an artist makes or puts in three-dimensional space.” I have never forgotten this pretentious post-Duchampian statement, not because I agreed with it – but quite the contrary. My first response was to inquire: How far have we moved from our ability to think and feel the presence of sculpture? Do we really believe the process and intelligence involved in making sculpture requires little more than how we place the material? Extant rumors at the time suggested that culture was being “dumbed down” by the popular media. But how far from art has this egregious process taken us? And where is sculpture today?
When it comes to form in three-dimensions, Barrios is right on time. He heralds the coming of a sensitive doubt in which the revival of thinking and feeling will coordinate in the process of making sculpture, a dictum also shared by the late Minimal sculptor Donald Judd. In the case of Barrios, his optical geometry – or “virtual volumes” as noted by Venezuelan artist, Jesus Rafael Soto – has brought poetry back into art. His sculptures resonate with masterful cinematic effect as recently shown on Park Avenue in New York. They vibrate, sparkle, and sing. As one’s optical gaze follows from one to another, the poetry within the sculptural forms of Barrios truly resonates. Let’s examine ho this happens with a few works from the current exhibition.
An early work, titled Vertical Dislocado, from 1983 – the earliest work in this exhibition – is structurally related to the Curvas. Although rectilinear – not curved – Vertical Dislocado the elements optically function as if in a state of floatation. The material is stained wood, which gives the presence of the work more weight, but not entirely. The placement of the wood forms allows a certain illusionist façade given to movement. This is why Barrios is understood as an optical kinetic sculptor. The concept of the form and the movement are equal in illusion. They are both present and absent at the same time. This is the unfathomable mystery behind his work.
While Barrios refers to his work is unfathomable – meaning difficult or impossible to fathom or understand – there is also a mystical quality that is far more elusive. Mysticism explores the unknown, and this is precisely what the art of Barrios suggests. His sculpture is made from materials, yet suggests the immaterial. In the early twentieth century, artists like Mondrian and Kandinsky were interested in the art of the spiritual; but it was, in actuality, a kind of mysticism that absorbed them. And so with Barrios, the ineluctable aspect of his art is always the most important and satisfying part of what he does. As the Russian linguist Roman Jacobson used to proclaim,
it is easier to decipher the signs and symbols in a work of art than to finally acknowledge the ultimate mystery behind the work. This would seem to be the way Rafael Barrios intends his work to be seen, felt, and understood.
Robert C. Morgan
Dr. Robert C. Morgan is the recipient of the Premiere Arcale award in Salamanca for international art criticism, and a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg. He lives and works in New York City where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts.