Studio visit with Johan Barrios: Working with light and challenging the limits of the medium

A prostrate figure lies obscured behind a row of pot plants, a man balances upside down in a headstand facing towards a wall, a woman’s hand is submerged in a glass of water. This is the kind of surreal subject matter that characterizes Colombian-born artist Johan Barrios’ hyper-realistic artwork. Working in drawing and painting, Johan’s work has a haunting quality about it. This is in part the result of the uncanny compositions, but also the medium. Johan is interested in the relationship between photographs and painting. In his practice the two mediums become interwoven and interchangeable. Johan explains: “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 which maintains its independent character.”

Unlike other artists who work in a hyper-realistic style, Johan is less concerned with virtuosic detail, and more with how this can be conceptually manipulated and explored. As such he plays with representation and interpretation, and the ideas of observing, looking and perception. Johan’s work invites the viewer to look up close, to step inside the frame of the picture, into a shifting world where things perhaps aren’t quite what they seem.

 We were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with the artist and find out more about his surreal compositions, career, and ongoing enquiry into concepts of time, movement and space.

AMM: Do you remember what the first piece of art you sold was? How has your career as an artist evolved since then? 

JB: My first official sale was when I was in high school. I sold three drawings to my principal! My art teacher introduced us to chalk pastels and when she saw I was really interested in experimenting with them, she sent me home with a brand new pad of Canson paper and borrowed pastels. I showed up with drawings the next day that impressed her so much, she decided to show our principal. Fair to say that my career has dramatically evolved since then, but one of the things I´ve conserved from that story is the passion for the simplicity in basic things like drawing.

AMM: Does your work space influence you creatively? What does your studio look and feel like?

JB: Absolutely, the size of my studio directly affects the dimensions of my larger paintings. The amount of natural light and color of the walls in my space inspire a totally different palette when I paint. Many objects I see and use daily make strong appearances in my work, for instance, my chairs, my pillow, my sheets, my tools. I recently moved my work space out of my home and I could not be happier. My studio is completely white with high ceilings and a lot of natural light. Simple things like being able to back away from my work and observe it from a distance has become extremely important in my process.

AMM: Do you have particular daily rituals that influence your art practice? What is your creative process?

JB: Well, lately, I have been trying to change up my morning routine with doing things that have nothing to do with my art like exercising and taking my time at home before rushing out to work. This has allowed me to arrive at my studio and see my work in progress with a clear mind each day. As for my creative process, it generally begins with a thought, then a quick sketch or words on paper that evolve into a meticulous process to capture my idea in photograph. I then move on to painting or drawing from the selected photos I’ve taken.

AMM: Who are the people in your artworks? Is there a story behind each one?

JB: As people, they are typically friends of mine, but in my work, they become props in my scenarios. Aside from that, I do enjoy working with models that themselves are creative, like artists, designers, photographers etc., because they bring much more to the work.

AMM: Your work has a surreal, haunting aesthetic that is at once captivating and unsettling. How does this visually convey some of your conceptual concerns?

JB: Yes, it´s true, my work does have those components, but I try not to dwell there. Behind the forms or the uncomfortable poses, I try to speak about the work itself. I intend to question the limits preconceived in the different mediums I´ve used throughout my bi-dimensional, artistic production in search of points of convergence within basic concepts like pictorial representation, negative space, and the absence or presence of the form.

AMM: How do you use light sources and color in your work?

JB: Light is one of the most important factors in both my drawings and paintings. For example, I often use flash or a strong light source to generate dramatic contrast that adds mystery to the question of where my characters are. With the simple visibility of shadows in my work, a close wall or a floor appears in an empty space. I have an interesting relationship with color when it comes to painting. I am constantly adjusting my very own desaturated palette that has become vital to creating the right atmosphere in my work.

AMM: While the figures in your work are rendered in intricate, photo-realistic detail, their faces are often obscured. Can you tell us more about this?

JB: Although I am a figurative painter, I do not intend to paint portraits. Perhaps not to give the people identity. The models I place in my imagery are objects or pieces that make up the idea.

AMM: How long do you typically spend working on each artwork for?

JB: Depends, often the amount of time is directly related to the size of the piece, but not always. I would say I spend about one week on my drawings and one month on my larger paintings.

AMM: In your artist text you bring up the notion of the artist as autobiographer. In what ways can your paintings and drawings be read as an extension of yourself?

JB: Simply in the way that my paintings and drawings speak about my process and how torturous it can be constructing an image. I feel that I do not need to literally paint myself to portray myself in my work, but in the end, each piece is a small self portrait.

AMM: When you’re not in studio where would we likely find you?

JB: Now that I live in Texas, you can find me fishing in my spare time or playing soccer on the weekends!

AMM: Part of being an artist is knowing how to look. Where do you look for inspiration?

JB: Out of everything, I ultimately look at a lot of abstract art. Abstraction has the magic to extract an idea without representing it figuratively, and that is what inspires me the most.

AMM: Do you have any exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

JB: This year has been amazing. I had the opportunity of having my first solo exhibition here in Houston with Anya Tish Gallery. This summer, in June, my work will be shown at SCOPE Basel with my gallery in Barcelona, Galeria Victor Lope, and I will also be participating in this year´s Moleskine Project with Spoke Art. To finish the year, I will have another solo in California. Therefore, I will be pretty busy with little time to do any fishing. 😉

See more of Johan’s work on his website:

Text written and interview conducted by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

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