The surreal paintings of Colombian artist Johan Barrios transmit feelings of discomfort and awe through strange and ominous imagery. His painted or sketched figures are rendered as inanimate objects in lifeless or uncomfortable postures, detaching them from human identities. Barrio’s subjects are further dehumanized through their relationships with other inactive elements such as sheets, plants or chairs in positions that are “unnatural, unanticipated and uncomfortable.” In his physical process Barrios approaches his subjects as sketches or drawings, which are blurred into abstracted environments with a de-saturated color palette. This approach, along with Barrios’ eerie use of light and shadow, gives his overall compositions a haunting, translucent appearance that is at once enchanting and confusing. Instead of attaching a personal narrative to the figures, we are invited to dehumanize Barrios’ subjects within the context of their mysterious environments. “The narratives my pieces tell are constructed of objects and how they interact,” explains Barrios. “The representation of ‘dead weight’ helps produce unexpected interactions between the elements and the figures. I also detach both the figures and objects from their assumed purpose or common uses and give them a new role.”
Johan Barrios, who now lives in Houston, Texas, will make his debut at Evoke Contemporary in our Summer Group Exhibition opening August 17th. The gallery will also host a solo exhibition of Barrios’ new work this October. To better introduce this exciting new artist to our collectors, we asked him a few questions about the process and concept behind his paintings and drawings in the Q&A below.
Interview with Contemporary Painter Johan Barrios
(Evoke) Tell us about the conceptual aspect of your work – why do you choose to portray your figures in slumped or inactive positions and often with obscured faces?
(JB) Throughout my process, I have reflected on the idea of eliminating the identity of my figures. I believe this is an important detail of my work because the narratives my pieces tell are constructed of objects and how they interact. The emotion in my work does not come from facial expression, but instead from their corporal pose.
(Evoke) You’ve said that you view your figures as objects rather than portraits – can you expand on this? Other than posture, in what ways do you portray this?
(JB) Many of my ideas come from the particular attention I give to the fundamental concepts of balance/tension and mass/volume. Posture and placement is key to rendering my figures as ‘lifeless’ and placing them in an inanimate state. The representation of ‘dead weight’ helps produce unexpected interactions between the elements and the figures. I also detach both the figures and objects from their assumed purpose or common uses and give them a new role.
(Evoke) There are recurring objects such as plants, sheets or chairs in your compositions. Do these things signify anything in particular?
(JB) They are important partly in the sense that they describe the moment and place in which I built my ideas without painting the whole scene. Many times my images are constructed on site. Most of these elements come directly from my intimate environment, where I work and live. Their use is always unnatural, unanticipated, and uncomfortable.
(Evoke) What role does color/light play in the overall composition and the concept of the piece?
(JB) The notion of painting each piece monochromatically brings the sense that every element is the same temperature. Some paintings can end up being warmer, others much cooler. The color is not only decorative but functional because it allows a way to unite all parts of my composition without distraction. It is also important to note that if you look closely at my figures, you will not find they are painted with natural flesh tones but instead desaturated and then immersed in the color palette of the specific painting. In my work, color and light are closely connected. I used to require a sharp contrast using flash and dark shadows, but it has evolved and I prefer to portray space with natural light and hints of shadows for depth where needed.
(Evoke) Can you talk about the relationship between the realism of the figures and the blurred/abstracted backdrops?
(JB) I don’t really consider my figures to be realistic. This is something I take pride in with my work. In my paintings, my figures are approached as drawings, or sketches. I appreciate the visibility of my brush strokes and areas left translucent where my underpainting peeks through. This begins the connection to the abstraction and importance of my backgrounds. Just like the other elements in my work, the background is often robbed of its true identity and given a new purpose to make my imagery even more strange and that is something I enjoy.
(Evoke) What role does photography play in your work as far as process or inspiration?
(JB) Photography is the same for me as a preliminary sketch of an idea would be for many artists. I used to attempt making many quick drawings to kickstart my ideas, but now I grab my camera or phone and start shooting different elements in different spaces to create the scenarios that become my work. Most of my images require that the models must hold their breath for a short time in awkward and difficult poses and the fight against the clock is something I find has become part of my process. It’s ironic because I can last a month working on painting where I’m recreating an ephemeral moment.
(Evoke) Any insights into your October solo exhibition that you can share?
(JB) Just that I am very excited to show with EVOKE and I am inspired to up my game on the level of strange and discomfort my imagery transmits through my work.
All photos courtesy of Johan Barrios. If you are interested in the work of this artist please contact the gallery via phone or email to be informed of current available inventory.