Art on the Street: Jorge Barrera

Categories: Art
Many of Miami's creatives are transient, showing up on our shores and disappearing as quickly as the tides. The Art on the Street series will document this overlooked and ever-changing element of South Beach culture.

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Camille Lamb
Artist Jorge Barrera with one of his paintings on the 37th Street boardwalk on Miami Beach
Artist Jorge Barrera leans against the railing of the boardwalk, looking ahead at the ocean as I approach on his right side. "I know what you want," he says, still not looking at me. When I say nothing, he finally turns to see my confused expression. "Sweetie, you think this hasn't happened a thousand times before?"

His grin is a tense anchor to his George Hamilton-orange face. His blue-black hair is slicked back in an unmoving Elvis Presley style. As he speaks, he sneaks sideways glances at David, a local man sitting on the bench next to him, with whom he was shooting the shit before I arrived.

I introduce myself and go to shake his hand. "I don't shake hands. I kiss," he says, very macho.I reluctantly go with it. "I been doing this 27 years," he says. "People come and ask me a bunch of questions, I can't tell you how many times. I don't care, ask away."
Originally from Cuba, he tells me he's been living and working in Miami for four years, and prior to that lived in New York, where he plans to return next month. 

I ask why he chooses to exhibit his work here at 37th Street, and he points downward, to a place on the grass below the boardwalk on the non-beach side. There is a four-foot square painted canvas splayed out on the ground. 

"Because I can do my work here," he says. "I have an open air studio. I'm a lucky bastard." He says sometimes people stand and watch him working. "I don't care," he repeats.

Camille Lamb

Just then, an elderly man marches down the boardwalk, leaning forward, lugging beach chairs and a backpack, but still managing to hold onto a glass of white wine, albeit precariously.

"Hey, there's no alcohol in my gallery! You're going to have to leave it with me," Barrera shouts at him.The man stops and turns around. "What?" he says, looking annoyed and exhausted. "I was just kidding! I said no drinking in my gallery, just kidding though," Barrera says to the panting man. 

"What's going on?" says a woman behind the old man. She is also schlepping a glass of wine and furrowing her brow at the artist. "Ah, you're together," remarks Barrera with an exaggerated sigh. "I didn't know this." The two, realizing that they are not in trouble, just being harassed by a bored boardwalk artist, move on.

"These people!" Barrera mumbles.   

As the old couple trots further away, there is an uncomfortable silence. Then I ask Barerra to describe the process by which he creates his Jackson Pollock-esque "splatter paintings." He refuses. 

"I don't want to tell people how to do it," he says curtly. I begin to point out that he just told me he works in an "open-air studio," where anyone can watch his creative process. He interrupts me. "I just don't feel like it!" he says. 

There is a short but uncomfortable silence, which he breaks by shouting at another passerby. "Hey, what happened to your stomach?" he yells at a teen girl walking with several friends. She looks down at her torso and replies, "Nothing." "Exactly, you don't have one, where did it go?" he chuckles. She smiles an embarrassed little smile, not missing a step. 

After another uncomfortable silence, I try a simpler question. Which painting is his favorite?
"That one," he says decisively, pointing to a canvas dominated by cool tones, its colors running into one another, some watered to transparency, some solid. "It's inspired by a nebulized photograph from the Hubble telescope," he says, pointing out several other similar pieces. "Let's just say that I'm most inspired by God's handiwork. And I take my pride in texture, like Monet or Van Gogh. The layers of paint that they had... it takes a lot of time. That's why I sell my work for three thousand, five thousand dollars. People know it takes time." 

I ask when people can expect to find him here, and he says it's impossible to tell. "I'm here, I'm in Coconut Grove, Key West, or I'm playing baseball." Barrera loves baseball. He says his main motivation for getting back to New York is a league he plays with in Central Park once spring temperatures arrive. He pulls his baseball glove over his hand as he speaks. 

 "Alex Rodriguez almost bought one of my paintings," he says. "His wife at the time convinced him not to, and three months later they were divorced. But that was a memorable moment, when my favorite player in the major leagues wanted to buy my work."

Barrera's friend David has left the bench to go home and traffic on the boardwalk is light. I thank the artist and tell him I won't take up any more of his time. In the absence of an audience, his demeanor changes. 

"I'm not really doing anything," he says, looking at the ocean, looking at his feet. "I'm just waiting."

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