Where: In the solo show “Mind’s Eye,” at Art of the World Gallery through Oct. 15
Why: The worlds of technology and art — and truth vs. fiction — find curious, liminal ground in the “virtual volumes” of Rafael Barrios. Not virtual in the sense we have come to know, these are large physical objects, designed with geometric shapes that seem to be bouncing jubilantly into the air, defying gravity. They look like something that leaped from a computer screen into worldly space.
The ability to look substantive when they are little more than facades is only half of their trickery, and the joke goes both ways. Elements viewers perceive as flat turn out to be two-dimensional. Stare long enough, or walk around a piece that looks to be made of convex angles, and lo and behold, you discover its parts are actually concave.
Elementary drawing students learn to play with perspective like this, but achieving the illusion in space, with meticulously welded, hand-lacquered steel, is no child’s play. Barrios’ paint technique is part of it. He balances transparent paint with a mix of tints (which dissolve in the medium) and essences (which float), to achieve light-grabbing gradations of color over a base of silver or white.
He sometimes employs simpler methods to make flat surfaces look transparent and multidimensional, or to make viewers think they are looking at a piece with four elements when in fact there are only two.
“The more I confuse you, the better,” he said, grinning.
Barrios, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., to Venezuelan parents, earned his degrees in Canada and New York, and found success quickly. Inspired by the kinetic works of Alexander Calder, the optical art of Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, and off-kilter Surrealism, his early work employed a wider range of materials, often referencing domestic interiors.
But he quickly coined a name for his own aesthetic, calling it virtualism. The “aha” moment that led to his signature play with concave surfaces happened in a very unmodern place: He visited Pierre August Rodin’s Paris studio at a time of day when the daylight captured the concave qualities in the mold of a face that was underneath a table.
Barrios’ first Houston show contains large and small works on pedestals, as well as a mobile or two and a few wall-dependent pieces that swivel. (Barrios also has public art on view in the region: Howard Hughes Corporation recently installed his “Acrobática” outside its offices in The Woodlands.) The forms are typically cube based, although Barrios sometimes tweaks and curves the lines, just to see how far he can go. These works have the liveliest sense of cartoonlike movement.
“Life is cubic,” he said. “It’s the most inexpensive position for a building, but just shift it 3 degrees and it becomes an event, a happening.”