Porto

José Barrias, Wunderkammer, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

José Barrias, Wunderkammer, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

José Barrias

Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art

José Barrias, Wunderkammer, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable.

The Latin words in this show’s title, “José Barrias: In Itinere,” might be best translated in this context as “ongoing” (rather than, for example, “in progress”), for the exhibition, curated by João Fernandes, did not offer any ascending arrangement of works or connect them in any obvious fashion. Instead, the Milan-based Portuguese artist created an erratic, labyrinthine environment in which new and older pieces in various mediums could effortlessly interact with each other and the museum space. The latter was structured as a series of galleries—some of which were painted in vivid colors, creating a sense of separation and enclosure—containing large installations, sculptures, drawings, and paintings, leading to a corridor dramatically illuminated with neon lights and filled with large, weighty white cuboids protruding at different angles from the walls, a work titled Camera Lucida, 2011. The dynamic arrangement of geometric forms, organized in a mirrored succession, brought to mind Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau. Inside the corridor, a voice whispered, in Portuguese and English: “I won’t be this any longer.”

One gallery, the so-called Room of Maps, featured a large, three-dimensional model and a series of planimetric drawings of the entire exhibition space prominently displayed on the wall. These peculiar maps of the exhibition were accompanied by several surreal objects, including No Mundo (In the World), 1995, a gigantic hemisphere wrapped in photocopied images, mounted on the wall and accompanied by a wooden ladder standing next to it and a spyglass placed across the room, and Micro Worlds, 2011, nine bicycle wheels with small spheres attached to them hanging from the ceiling, which looked like implausible planets revolving in their orbits. This whimsical juxtaposition of works produced a quiet, refined spectacle that the visitor did not need to understand fully to find engaging and enjoyable.

Similarly, in Wunderkammer, 2011, various curiosities were put on display—with obscure logic—in wooden cabinets and vitrines, as well as presented on the walls. A bottle of wine with a label carrying a portrait of Karl Marx and several African masks were placed next to photographs of ancient Egyptian sculptures, toy soldiers, and a copy of Fernando Pessoa’s book Mensagem (Message, 1934). As a collection, these objects clearly belonged to what Michel Foucault once called a “heterotopia of time,” a space in which objects from different eras and styles are enclosed as precious artifacts, seemingly out of context as their original functionality has been reduced to highlight their visual presence. The specter of Pessoa—which lurks behind the works of so many Portuguese contemporary artists—revealed itself in this show in the way reality became fragmented, abbreviated, and mutable. Barrias’s passion for mixing images with text, which was apparent throughout this exhibition, found its fullest realization in a gallery called Camera Picta, with mural-size images of pages from his notebook painted directly on the wall in a work called Notebook, 2011. One such page quoted a poem by Wisława Szymborska that contains the following lines: “Write as if you’d never talked to yourself / and always kept yourself at arm’s length.”

One constantly discovered something unexpected in this exhibition. With a plethora of works often referencing—or “echoing,” as Barrias might prefer to say—works by other artists, poets, and writers (and with a conscious self-reflection on the spatial and philosophical functions of the museum itself) the show encouraged the imagination to roam freely with the assurance that the artist who had arranged this oneiric journey has put an impressive knowledge of the past in the service of an enhanced perception of the present.

Marek Bartelik