Painting as a writing of oneself

by Lucrecia Piedrahita, Art Curator*


“I had never met a woman this beautiful, like my stone figures: a woman that could stay still for hours, without talking to you, like something necessary that doesn’t need to act in order to be, that made me lose track of time, because she was still there. A woman that let others look at her without smiling or blushing, because she had understood that beauty is something serious. Stone women are purer than others and, above all, more faithful, but they are sterile. They have no openings through which they are exposed to pleasure, death or the seed that produces children, and therefore, they are less fragile. Sometimes, they break, and their beauty is kept for eternity in each individual piece of marble, just as God is in all things, but nothing from the outside can penetrate them and break their hearts. Imperfect beings flutter about and pair up in order to complement each other, but things that consist of pure beauty are solitary, like human sorrow.”
Marguerite Yourcenar
In: Stories of the Sistine Chapel. Gherardo Perini.


* Lucrecia Piedrahita is a museologist from the International University of Art, in Florence, Italy, and a LIPAC grant art curator from Buenos Aires University, Argentina. She has a postgraduate degree (certificate of specialization) in Urban Journalism from UPB University, in Medellín, Colombia, and also in Political Studies, from EAFIT University, also in Medellín, Colombia. She is currently studying a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at 17, Institute of Critical Studies, in Mexico City. Furthermore, she is a student of Architecture of the Faculty of Architecture of UPB University, Medellín, Colombia. She was a member of the team of Viewers/Curators of PHOTOESPAÑA and the Director for Latin America of the edition of the Chicago University book Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo's Political Art, written by Mieke Bal, published by the Medellín branch of the National University of Colombia and Formacol.

The movement-image

These are images that concern the art of poetry that makes cinema possible. Actions are unrepeatable and fleeting, but on the other hand, we see poetic fiction or mimesis, where there are no rules about virtue, but only interior poiesis. Thus, fiction gets its own space, time and stage. In it, there is no need for a specific place, but rather a plastic void. In it, actions are not successively linked to each other, they can all be immediate or eternal. This way, art is a visualizing factor: it interweaves forces as it transfers and simulates certain aspects (mimesis).

Film essays constitute an antidote for the problem of representing reality or talking about real elements. Cinema is revealing, because it directly expresses and connects aspects that are related to thought, to our inner conscience. It appeared at a moment in human history in which language had lost its symbolic value and in which the world of representation was no longer desirable.

In the works of Gilles Deleuze, “The Movement-Image” and “The Time-Image”, this philosopher outlines a theory of cinema that “is not only “about cinema”, but rather about the concepts that it stirs up, and that are themselves connected to different concepts from other fields.”[1] There is an unyielding magical dimension to images, because they are related to desire, death, shadow and immortality. Images have the potential to bring out all sorts of meanings of the world or to break away from usual language, and this is because they are not trying to be an impression of the world that is available, but rather a way of revealing all other worldly senses. It is Deleuze who opened up new ways of interpreting art, who created new ideas and who formulated challenges that have allowed us to explore new lines of reflection and to redefine the philosophical, political and aesthetic stakes of contemporaneity: as the time of actions is in the past, we welcome a new time of reflection. We have gone from mere representation to expression, and a monocentric vision is no longer enough to understand reality, because it has lost its statute of essential reality. We are faced with a hybrid type of space that demands a multipolar vision: we have to look at it from an infinite series of perspectives. The subject is breaking away from its singularity, the singularity of one viewpoint. Instead, it is now reconstructed through multiple looks that are interrupted, that cut it up, also destroying its singularity. In a contemporary view of the world, there are many more perspectives, allowing us to see much more, and this has even lead us to widen our perception of reality, involving our senses and driving us as subjects of experiences.


The work of artist Johan Barrios is a universe of images[2] in movement, whose language goes in search of different features of sonorous expressions, synchronic or asynchronous visuals, elements of action, gestures and silhouettes that pierce his paintings as an ascending vanishing line that sequentially runs through every painting so as to make us understand the meaning of interval between one image and the next, which shows us the power that is communicated by the images and the perceptive impact that stems from viewing a painting and the communicational impression it leaves on us. Thus, we are presented with a technical, poetic and aesthetic image that can be read by the spiritual eye of whomever is observing it. 

The movement that can be found in the work of Barrios must be understood according to the Deleuzian concept, which means it is movement that incarnates the conception of time. The emphasis is on movement; movement is essential, real, in such a way that its relation to time does not go through space, but rather through something beyond mere space, meaning our spirit or conscience.

Going through something visually refers to the act of painting and drawing. It is a way of fixating on shapes in sight so that later, they can come to life on canvas or paper. It is the spacetime simultaneity that Aristotle talks about. Imagining something on paper means outlining it in your thoughts. This fixation or retention is the condition that makes perception possible, that precedes it. In the work of Johan Barrios, the tracing of lines makes it possible to represent invisible aspects (time) in –or through – space, in order to give a present shape to the sensation that you are left with in your mind. But these strokes are at the same time the conscience itself of what is traced out (time).  Thus, time is turned into the possibility to retain things. Painting and drawing organize our thoughts. Groups of dots and lines define the imperturbable portraits and fiery landscapes that burn deep inside the atmospheres that the artist is showing us. The movement in his work is present from the depths of the spaces through which his characters move. This vibe creates a balance with the levity and the lightness of their bodies and with the body of the artist himself, who announces his presence in the painting, not in an explicit way, but rather from the stealthy perspective of someone who is observing in order to put together, quietly and precisely, the outlines of his characters. His invisible body is balanced out by the importance of the characters that are represented. It is one and the same spirit that commands these universes that are being observed and that create a visual force and a powerful presence in order to continue to draw the attention of the one who is looking and who is being looked at. This gravitational field also becomes evident through the grimaces of his characters and their soft and slow mobility, which define the actions of those who inhabit the space that is no longer painted, in order to dis-appear between the wiping out of the line and the gestural stroke of the paint. Hyperreality as truthfulness or the truthful as an equally deceitful possibility.

Thus, the work of Johan Barrios renames performance through an emphatic, self-reflexive and critical dialogue: the body as a subject and as an object. It is a performative act that is deconstructed by interfaces, by intervals. It is relentless dualism: a performance without a body. A body that expands and that is not subject to any limits, that reflects about actions that are gestures, movements, and displacements, in order to approach a process of conceptual representation of the body as a territory. Thus, the flow of time of this neo-performance must be understood as the process of living itself, which is complemented by the multiple perspectives of the spectator, of the others.

There is a geometric idealization in his characters that underlines the choreography in movement: “Choreography means providing movement with a countable rhythmic structure. Through the act of counting, space is connected with time, whether or not time is articulated by means of music.”[3] The works of Johan Barrios are all connected by precision and meter. Pictograms function as scriptural annotations of the iconographies of the artist themselves and allow for the order of the montage separately and jointly, in which time, as an aesthetic category, determines their existence and is accentuated in the imprecision of the creases of shade and the surface that gathers the light. Images that seem to come from visual and tactile cinema. It is the philosopher Jacques Derrida for whom the privilege of the visible is founded on touch, with which he refers to the matter as “touch that sees”, which brings about a deep reflection about the “visible” and the “invisible”.

In Barrios’ paintings, the revaluation of the action of touching and the sense of touch are accelerated. Tactile qualities are reclaimed in all their senses, accentuated by technical mastery, color use and a meticulous approach to body-language: how the body falls, how it can remain still and balanced, how it simulates inertia and how it holds its breath. Works with emotive and consistent textures, sonorous scenes and spaces that are inhabited by characters marked by order and serenity all make up a court in which the hieratic attitude of portraits is emphasized and their beauty invokes both presence and absence.

This latent feel in his paintings evokes a new feeling of space and emphasizes the enigma and seduction that his work creates: trace, impression, outline, prints, and at the same time erasure, brevity, fleeting moments, nomadism. Touch is also reclaimed by the counterweight between darkness and light, the diluted shadows and the surface that catches the light in order to give the senses a dimension of depth… “We have the feeling that the air in those places contains a thick silence, that in that darkness, an eternally inalterable serenity reigns.”[4]


Photography is a strategy used by Barrios in order to create space in his paintings. The artist intervenes in the photograph in order to then transfigure it onto canvas in a strict composition exercise that is the definitive factor of the constituents of the image. In his process, the photograph, as a model resource, keeps its independent existence and leaves space for the presence of the painting. Both media have an interchangeable relation and are interwoven in such a way that they cannot be discussed separately. The photographic action is perpetuated by the painting, which the eyes of the spectator explore in order to recognize, amongst the bodies, the existence of an abstract landscape and the framing of the object that accompanies the scene but that maintains its independent character.

The coming together of painting, photography and sculpture is historic. “One of the sculptures that has had the biggest influence in this century, Source, of Marcel Duchamp (1917), is only known in its original version thanks to the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, who took them before it would be destroyed or lost. Sculptors (as well as painters) have used photography since the day it was invented to explore their own ideas of a work and to channel the way in which it is perceived by others.”[5]

In the work of J. Barrios, there is also a convergence of drawing as on organizational system throughout his work, as a resource in itself of the syntax of the process that stimulates his production and the public’s perception towards space that is activated by the drawing itself and by the perception of time of the spectator who interacts with what they are looking at. The drawings appear as documents that are stacked up and taken down and that recover the specificity of the place and of the time in order to dialogue with the neutral space in which they are exhibited. They all function as a working cabinet, a Wunderkammer, in which the recurring media introduce a renovating aesthetic energy and a conceptual twist to approach his work. It is not art of pure visibility, but rather an art per se, and this gives his work its interdisciplinary nature.

The enigmatic image of his paintings and drawings is made clear through the infra-light essence that sequentially runs through everything he paints and draws. In this game of connection through which he shows how the infra-light[6] is “following the current lines of fragility, in order to be able to capture what it is, and how things that are could stop being what they are.”[7] Accumulations of moments, brief interventions in time and space, everyday inhabitants that move about in the emptiness/support, acoustic images of the paintings of Johan Barrios that are diluted in the evanescent microseconds of the departure or of what will not yet happen.


Since the avant-garde and post avant-garde movements, artists have been experimenting with a new condition of space. They do not create pieces of art in it or for it, but rather create space. In this sense, the contemporary work of Barrios is not limited to space, but rather, it finds the balances typical for it and its formal systems of equivalence in his own doing in space. His work builds in space in order to express the validity of the profession in current paintings, emptying the surface to load up the matter with presence and solidity, with lightness and mass. His accent throughout the process, gestures and traces, are experiences that are inherent to an artist who values the relations between space and figure, with a higher degree of forcefulness towards a critical discourse on artistic practices and the grammars of life.

The action in two planes is developed simultaneously and creates a counterpoint. It is an absolute painting. The actors are perceived as shapes with which the artist is playing in the movement itself of the ensemble. There are some shapes in tension-suspension and gravity that ensnare us in their intense inner being. The unfolding of the shape and the underlying pulse that vibrates in the scene drive the trajectory of the imperturbable bodies, “which reminds us of the argument proposed by Kleist[8]: as if grace and interiority were opposed”. The bodily and parallel relation hints at a different way of rehabilitating space and experimenting weight, and the corporal tangibility of this painting poetically underlines the iconography of micro politics, in which personal aspects are political. Its plastic language overcomes the “ways of doing things” and provides efficient answers to the demands of contemporary aesthetics, underlining one of the most meaningful elements in his work: time/space/movement. 

The history of art as an expression that is created every day points at an essential element in his work to read contemporaneity in terms of city, territory and urban pulses.


The pictorial self-portrait as a writing of oneself

[Descripción. Oil on canvas. 150x180cm]

If writing is, or so it seems, inevitably an autobiographic act or, if you prefer, almost always self-referential, then I would like to propose the idea that the pictorial self-portrait of Johan Barrios is also a writing.

Through a self-portrait, we can read its creator. Just like a dream, the painting is a writing in images that can be read and deciphered. Starting with a representation, says José Luis Brea, “the space of the self-portrait is opened up as a territory of otherness, of constitution in action, in a pure process of the “I” as something manufactured […] in every act of viewing (even more so when it is done by a mechanical, technical eye) a subject-in-process appears, prompted right there –as the sole effect of the rhetorical nature of sight”[9]. Portraying oneself is an act of construction of the creator. There is a subject-author, the one who creates, who is in his turn transformed into a subject-object, the one represented. By painting himself, the painter constructs himself. The self-portrait is the visual equivalent of a written autobiography. 

The self-portrait, just like an autobiography, would be an expression from oneself to another, but also, and at the same time, to oneself. Portraying yourself –or  representing yourself – is entering in a dialogue with yourself, the fate of one’s own story, because the subject who is looking is not always the same, and neither is the object that is being observed always presented in the same way.

The work of Johan Barrios makes us believe in art, exposing ourselves to it, overcoming its horrors without succumbing to them, creating things from nothingness, from impossibility, from the experience of what has not yet been created or of what has not yet happened, experimenting the weight of the world and, at the same time, ridding ourselves of it.

[1] Deleuze, G., La imagen-tiempo, Barcelona, Paidós, 1987, p. 365.

[2] “En la imagen siempre hay una desviación entre lo que muestra y lo que significa (…) una imagen no es un icono que está ahí, un dato visual, una unidad visual. No es un cuadro ni un plano (…) la imagen es siempre una relación, un desvío, una separación entre una función de significación y una función de mostración, pero también una separación entre dos imágenes, entre la mostrada y otras que serían posibles. La imagen siempre es plural. La vida de las imágenes se hace con otras imágenes (…) Una imagen está muerta si está dada y se interrumpe. La imagen es siempre un intervalo o una expansión. Metamorfosis, desestabilización, trasformación.” En: Bernárdez Sanchís, Carmen - Bozal, Valeriano - De Diego, Estrella, et al. Imágenes de la violencia en el arte contemporáneo. Madrid: Valeriano Bozal, 2005, pág. 129.

[3] Sontag, S., Cuestión de énfasis. Buenos Aires,  Alfaguara, 2007. Pág. 195.

[4] Tanizaki, Junichiro (1933). El elogio de la sombra. Madrid: Siruela (trad. Julia Escobar), pág, 14.

[5] Bucholh, Benjamin - Anna Temmkin, et al. Textos sobre la obra de Gabriel Orozco, Conaculta/Turner. 2005, pág. 131

[6] “Infra-leve” es el término que creó Marcel Duchamp para definir aquello que es más que leve, el recuerdo de la presencia de algo que ya no está o como dice el título del libro de Miguel Ángel Hernández Navarro “lo que queda en el espejo cuando dejas de mirarte”. Fuente:

[7] Foucault, Michel, Obras esenciales III (Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo), Paidós, Barcelona, España, 1999. P. 325.

[8] Klesit, Ensayo sobre el teatro de marionetas de. Su Asunto es un estado ideal del espíritu; escrito en 1810, es también el primer gran ensayo sobre la danza. Klist exalta una manera de ser sin introspección o psicología como cumbre de la gracia y la profundidad del arte. Escrito cuando se inventaron las características oposiciones modernas del corazón frente a la cabeza, lo orgánico frente a lo mecánico, Kliest pasa por alto el oprobio ya adjunto a la metáfora de lo mecánico e identifica los movimientos mecánicos de las marionetas con la sublimidad de lo impersonal. El ideal romántico de nula afectación no se identifica con la libre expresión de la personalidad sino con su trascendencia. Estas oposiciones (y evaluaciones) románticas continuaron dominando la sensibilidad durante otros siglos, y devinieron hasta lo que conocemos por modernidad, modernidad “romántica”, la cual fue desafiada por la modernidad “neoclásica”: diversas ideas de lo impersonal tan diferentes como las de Duchamp y las de Balanchine (para el cual el ballet debía hacer caso omiso de la experiencia interna). En: Sontag, S., Cuestión de énfasis. Buenos Aires,  Alfaguara, 2007. Pág. 194.

[9] Brea, José Luis, “Fábricas de identidad (retóricas del autorretrato)” en El tercer umbral. Estatuto de las prácticas artísticas en la era del capitalismo cultural, 2009 (Versión electrónica).