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Alicia Barney: the Alternative Landscape


Miguel González, 1982

Holding on to the natural world’s drama.


It seems that in Colombia in the 1970s, the value of landscape as a theme grew precipitously. The roots of this phenomenon lie in the exposition “PAISAJE 1900-1975 [LANDSCAPE 1900-1975],” organized by the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá. Undoubtedly, one of the most significant aspects of this exhibit was its spirit of redefinition, underscoring the new concepts exemplified by Ana Mercedes Hoyos, Antonio Caro, and the now-absent Jorge Posada. This character developed in opposition to the “realist,” academic versions of the regressive sector, interested in the (wrongful) restoration of correct and faithful representation as the only possibility of expression.


In the international scene, the effectiveness of traditional representation ceded to the effectiveness of physical presence, whether it was in order to transform, underscore, or simply interfere. The subject of landscape, to preserve its timeliness, was rationalized through various means, dismantling the strength of its subject into something that went beyond natural reason, obvious and soothing, to delve into the problems generated by the effect both of its immanent physical properties and its postulated consequences.


From this landscape, liberating or tyrannical, neo-romantic or unsentimental, virtual or systematic, inscribed under the labels of Arte Povera, Land Art, or simply ecological art, whose purpose seemed to be to revise the ideas aimed at the production of meaning based solely on continuity or likeness, enriched by opening an alternative epistemology to illuminate the path through which discontinuity and difference is mobilized as practice, emerges a generation in Colombia that understands the contemporary meaning and the pitfalls of rationalization in order to issue provocations.


A good example of the internal and external use of landscape, as well as elements of landscape in the urban, rural, and wilderness context, in different senses, is the work of Alicia Barney (Cali, 1952), who produces closed and austere pieces, completely ignoring commercial appeals and holding onto nature’s drama, as in her most recent works of political condemnation.


Barney arrived to New York to study art in College of New Rochelle in 1969, the year of the exhibit “Ecological Art” at the Gibson Gallery that featured, among others, André, Christo, Dibbets, Hutchinson, Insley, Long, R. Morris, Oldenburg, Oppenhein, and Smithson. Barney studied there and presented her thesis in 1974, which consisted of mobile, minimalist sculptures in iron and wood (in the style of Anthony Caro), and abstract paintings of colors absorbed by the canvas (influenced by Helen Frankenthaler). Within a year, she had created her first work adapted to her own media and circumstances, entitled Viviendas [Housing]. The work is composed of paintings on tree trunks that form a natural forest in which doors and windows are drawn, evoking a fantastic imaginary architecture (1). Alicia Barney prefers to intervene in nature rather than imitate it, painting on it instead of attempting to reconstruct it. From the same year comes Puente sobre tierra [Bridge Over Earth] (2), a poetic proposal that connects two places with water, inverting the bridge’s function and its common use. Photographs of these works accompanied Barney’s application to Pratt Institute in New York, where she specialized in sculpture from 1975 to 1977. During this period she received her definitive training in Pratt’s free, experimental workshops where Barney began to construct a body of work based in external symbols, while also building her own mythology. There were boxes to look inside and open, in which the audience members become active participants transforming the work. All of this culminated in pieces such as La música [The Music] and Los músicos [The Musicians], the first symbolized by four plaster blocks with two hands in counter-relief, so that when audience members placed their hands in the work, where she had constructed the empty space of hands simulating the sensations of various musical compositions. Los músicos consists of closed cardboard boxes that can be opened by interested visitors: Liszt is a hand submerged in tiny pieces of old sheet music with perfumed white silk coming off its top; Debussy is a hand buried in autumn leaves; Bach has twenty-two clay fingers for his twenty-two children, and the Gregorian chants feature fragile hands with delicate lilac and yellow ribbons hanging from them (3).


In a different direction, her research is oriented towards elaborating environmental projects in which the spectator is stimulated through obstacles and persuasive elements (4). Three books from 1977 close the circle of her initiatory experiences. The first is composed of postcards from the various states of the U.S. that she traveled through, marked from east to west and covered in white paint and crossed out. The second was created using a Xerox machine: a book displaying its distinct parts with interventions. The last, displays the trace of a candle’s flame on different qualities of found papers, showing its effect and fragility.


In March of 1977 Barney presented Diario-Objeto [Diary-Object] for the first time, in which she renounces a merely objective experience with her arguments. For months, she went into the streets of New York (and various places in Colombia, when visiting on vacations) collecting things that drew her attention. Some of these experiences were weekly or daily and gave origin to mobiles created out of telephone bills, movie tickets, food wrappers. This autobiographical, fragile, and semi-ephemeral work showed possibilities that would situate the artist openly within the sphere of urban waste, consumer society, and her poetics of rust. The cynicism of her action is extended to the carelessness of its presentation, installing scornfully each element. Diario-Objeto was later presented in Cali in 1978 (5). On this occasion, I asked the artist for a text that was copied and given to visitors. In part, it reads: “Even though the diary is basically masturbatory, it extends into other realms. Autobiography is not more important than what it translates to, and therefore it is universal among individuals. Being is presented through artifacts reflecting and commenting on interests that are as personal as they are public, represented in the material world, giving recognition to the passing of time. On the physical level, the sculpture confronts people with their own bodies; the diary analyzes and shatters this world only to organize it again, as such, the object will be endlessly forgotten and remembered, becoming almost nonexistent. Once we have accepted our basic condition of isolation, communication is possible on certain levels; individual life has common denominators, as one lives in society. The diary can be read thanks to its threads, each of which forms a ‘story.’ However, its meaning is sufficiently evasive so that each is distinct from the other. The human experience is mysterious. The perception of reality is at once subjective and fragmentary; even so, it is revealed through matter. Memory and present come together. Objects attract the senses of those who look at them and the experience is transferred, the diary’s autonomous existence depends upon that.”


The next year she was invited to form part of the Fifth Atenas Salón, in the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art. There she presented eight works that comprise Diario-Objeto 2, using acrylic and glass, and collecting objects from her Colombian experience. Cali-Florida, Bocagrande I y II, Día en la montaña [Mountain Day], exemplify these assemblages of seashells, branches, leaves, snail shells, and other elements that Alicia Barney continuously sorted and put into polyethylene bags, like vegetables in a supermarket. The works were hung on the wall and their appearance took on a lyric tone. From this work I reproduce the following quote, among other critical reactions: “At the same time, her works seemed so simple that they ran the risk of being cast aside or, ironically, of being packed in the bags invented by Colombian historicism. Even so, the assemblages remained there to be minutely studied, as is done with the ecological waste of vanished cultures. With this, Barney immersed the public in the physical material of her work, creating a direct, anecdotal, almost intimate communication. It was a formidable attempt to make a break with Colombian historicity, that disproportionate veneration of illusionist and conventional art and artists.” (6)


In 1980, La Tertulia Modern Art Museum of Cali organized “Art for the Eighties.” Alicia Barney participated with her work Yumbo, during the leap year of 1980. The work was testimonial, inevitably critical, and of a political nature. According to Barney, from the syntactical point of view, the materials of pollution, the map of the city, and the supporting glass boxes are the protagonists of a work whose implications are caused by a social drama. There is a rupture with the object-as-end, and the neo-constructivist aspect of Diario-Objeto cedes to distinctive elements characterized by a type of syncretist or differentiated perception, alluding tangentially to what we commonly mean as a “work of art,” with its denotative meanings.


After Yumbo, Alicia Barney began to alternate her research between emotional lyricism (Diario-Objeto 1 and 2) and ecological criticism (Yumbo, Río Cauca), in which the emotional emphasis has been cast aside in order to more clearly demonstrate its reasons and its plain structure. Naturally, for the conception and process of works, as in these latest, research that includes ecological, political, and scientific statistics is inevitable: her art now exists within a framework that demands an interdisciplinary practice.


When the show “Art for the Eighties” opened in Bogotá in 1981, Alicia Barney presented ten acrylic tubes containing stratified materials (7), with which she once again returned to an aesthetic of the natural, evoking the interior beauty of an ineffective and imaginary landscape. These tubes full of debris were, in the words of the artist, “utopian landfills. Utopian because here in Colombia, the trash is left out in the open air, which impedes rapid biodegradation and a faster recuperation of the soil.”


At this moment, Alicia Barney is working on the completion of a project about the Cauca River: two pools of water that will be presented in the Actidudes Plurales [Plural Attitudes] show in November, at La Tertulia Museum of Modern Art. The initial prospect for this work was presented in the showing of Coloquio de Arte No-Objetual y Arte Urbano [The Non-Objective and Urban Art Colloquium] in the Modern Art Museum of Medellín (1981). This work includes photographs, maps, and water in dramatically transformed phases of degradation while the river advances through the Cauca Valley, denouncing the malignant powers of these contaminated waters.


During this 1982 and since the end of last year, Alicia Barney has planned and created the newspaper El Ecológico, based on existing publications. She takes the editorial page (the original name has been crossed out, although it can still be read) and ironizes its images, dividing them in two groups: “Species in Danger of Extinction” and “Species Without Danger of Extinction,” emphasizing not only their ecological aspects, but themes of religion, politics, economics, that speak at the same time of war, feminism, and military presence. These works have been shown in Porto Alegre (Chaves Gallery, Espacio N.O.), and in Barranquilla (Espacio-Alterno Sara Modiano), and will be exhibited in the aforementioned Actitudes Plurales. From the show’s text, I transcribe: “In the case of El Ecológico, as in the daily press, text almost always defines and frames the image. Alicia Barney respects this principle and moves images into the context of her newspaper and her art. It is a geometrical collage, with a precise and figurative style, following pop art’s idea of elevating an object to the category of art. Its images are not banal. They refer to disasters that have a terrible effect on the life of man on the earth. The destruction of a forest, the death of rivers, pollution…” (8).


Landscape again acts as an operating system, a counter-discourse to its referents and models. These are the new possibilities that an artist such as Alicia Barney sets in motion, choosing the difficult path of showing the environment all around us through other methods, reclaiming an analytic action that goes beyond a worn-out text of representation, propped up by the easel, with its superficial and static ideas.





(1) The trunks of fourteen trees are painted with acrylic material. Florida, Valle, Colombia, 1975. Documented with photographs.

(2) An approximately ten-meter trench. Florida, Valle, Colombia, 1975. Documented with photographs.

(3) These music boxes were exhibited in “Cali década de los 1970s” [Cali, 1970s decade]. Chamber of Commerce of Cali, 1980.

(4) Some drawings are preserved: with projects consisting of altered floors, tape used as barriers, doors that open and close, etc. 1976.

(5) Cali, Central Library, Universidad del Valle (September-October) and State Gallery (November).

(6) “Todo tiempo pasado fue mejor” [The Past Was Always Better], Jose Hernán Aguilar; Revista del Arte y la Arquitectura en Latinoamérica #5, pg. 35, Medellín, 1980.

(7) The pieces are five centimeters in diameter and 180 in length. They have been shown in "Art for the Eighties," Garcés Velásquez Gallery (January, 1981), IV Medellín Biennial (May, 1981) and 20th Century Art in Colombia, Centro Colombo Americano (Bogotá, 1982).

(8) El Paraíso Perdido [Paradise Lost], Alvaro Herazo, “El Heraldo”, Barranquilla, pg. 2A, June 4,1982.




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