Glistening in the sun, a towering sculpture of four rectangular forms reaches toward the sky. Its gravity-defying presence is daunting and mysterious, but then a side view reveals the clever secret: The structure is narrow, just 2-3 inches wide, and slightly concave to appear more three-dimensional than it actually is. “What you see is with your mind and not with your eyes,” artist Rafael Barrios says of his work. “Your eyes are just extraordinary lenses.”
For nearly five decades Barrios has been making sculptures, mobiles and furnishings meant to spark humorous moments of discovery. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and raised in Venezuela, Canada and the United States, he studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, subsequently pursuing his career in New York and then moving to Miami in the 1990s.
His foray into unconventional sculptural furniture began in 1975 when he crafted a slanted table that caught the eye of collectors and critics internationally. He went on to devise distorted chairs and become known for works like the Rock Table, a tall, leaning piece featuring a trio of suspended rocks seemingly countering the tilt. “I wanted my work to move you even though you knew what these objects were,” Barrios says. “They were deforming or transforming the way you look at them. I found them fun and playful, therefore didactical.”
In 1982, the artist initiated his acclaimed series of monumental thin sculptures. His idea: “I could work with concaves to find the right angles so it’s almost at, but your mind will dictate it is a volume,” he explains. “It worked wonderfully. It even tricked me.”
Barrios begins a sculpture by sketching a concept on paper, rotating it to observe it from every position. He then fashions a model in foam board or cardboard before fabricating the piece. His creations–some indoor, some outdoor–are rendered in wood, stainless steel, aluminum, bronze, polycarbonate, glass, and resin.
During the process, Barrios shines a light around each piece to mimic the sun’s trajectory, observing how shadows respond to the angles and generate dimension. To intensify the effect, he combines epoxy paints so his works have a pearlescent sheen and shift color in different lighting–violet blue, opal magenta, red and green golds.
At age 71, Barrios has also designed rugs, is exploring prisms and is working on more utilitarian objects, such as trays, each with its own surprise. “I want to reach that extraordinary sensation of discovery,” he says. “It’s what keeps me alive– inventing, creating and producing for life.”