The Art of Juan Silva: Antofagasta, Chile

Authors’ note in September 2018: I recently learned that Juan Salva passed away earlier this year year. I deeply appreciated the opportunity to meet him and speak with him five years ago in 2013; viewing his artwork and hearing his story was a highlight of my stay in Chile. I am reposting this from my original blog (now offline), Postcards from Amanda, dated according to its original publish date of March 2013.


Last week, I was invited by a friend to go with her to meet a painter, Juan Salva, at an exhibit of his work in a small gallery here in Antofagasta.

In a brochure from one of his previous art exhibits, Salva, a native of Antofagasta, is described as a maestro with his own unique voice that has a “special regard for northern (Chilean) as well as Latin American art.” (…sin duda, todo un maestro, un especial referente para nuestra pintura nortina y a la vez, latinoamericana.)*

When I first walked into the exhibit space, I was struck by the movement that many of his paintings exuded. Powerful and expressive – yet just barely “there” – figures swayed, swirled and danced within their canvases.

There was a stillness that was also present in some of his work. A few paintings were calmer and more pensive, likewise forcing the viewer to reflect inwardly upon themselves.

The colours were the second thing that struck me about his work. Many were in the rich earthy red and orange tones that I associate closely with the desert region of Antofagasta and the Atacama.

I felt one painting in particular, of a group of figures dancing closely together, seemed to resonate the most with my impressions of this region: it was in the deep orange tones that I associate with the colors of the desert, and the figures seemed to be flowing in a circle. My mind could easily imagine the group of dancers extending outside the space of the canvas, in perpetual movement together.

The artist described this work to us as representative of the collective, or the people becoming one through dance. (To paraphrase. I wish I had his exact quote for you, but at the time I was concentrating on understanding each of his words, a bit of a harrowing task considering my newness to the Spanish language.)

In one of his exhibit brochures, a commenter writes, “It is the voice of the geology of the desert, which is silent, but the painter found it in his translation, something like the silent grief of the animal world expressing themselves in the conscious pain of mankind…. over the years, he has been inspired by the ancient rhythms of religious dances, and if that has been accomplished, it is because he has found an echo in his capacity as a Latin American artist.” (Es la voz de la geologia del desierto, que es muda pero que encuentra en el pintor su traduccion, algo asi como el dolor silencioso del mundo animal expresandose en el dolor conciente de la humanidad…. durante anos, le ha inspirado el ritmo ancestral de los bailes religiosos y si lo ha hecho es porque han encontrado un eco en su condicion de artista latinoamericano.)*

As we wandered around the room, the few paintings that were not in the striking desert earth tones stood out to me. Their colour was not only different, but the figures they portrayed also seemed distinct from the rest. In one, an angular figure was portrayed in a bright pink on one side and a twin figure in a cool, almost neon blue on the other side. I asked the artist about his use of color in this painting and he replied that it was to represent contrast.

Another canvas, in an almost neon green, also stood out. In this, figures seemed to swirl endlessly around the space, almost like a cloud of smoke emerging from a bottle and drifting through a room. When I inquired about this work, the artist mentioned something along the lines that it was a primordial style representation of a loss of consciousness. There was nothing structured in this piece because he wanted to represent how things are experienced in an unconsciousness state. (Again, please note that I am severely paraphrasing.)

J. Salva has travelled to many different countries to exhibit his work and also has created a number of murals that can be seen on the streets of Antofagasta. (One mural he created a few years ago was on the concrete barrier walls along the ocean, and can only be viewed by boat from the water.) His willingness to meet us and to speak with us about his art struck me as special, especially when compared to the relatively secretive nature I have observed in many North American artists: he is clearly open to sharing his work, his point of view and inviting of us to join him in a glimpse into his thought processes.

“His painting is not tied to the past, nor is it avant-guard by any means, its route so far is a spiral “inward” toward the deep, a safe anger…” (Su pintura no esta atada al pasado, ni es vanguardia a toda costa, su camino hasta ahora es una espiral “hacia dentro” hacia lo profundo, ira seguro…)*

Indeed, I felt that his work was a reflection upon not only the people of his region of the world but on humanity in general. By creating paintings that strategically use colour to evoke feelings, emotions and places; portraying semi-abstract figures that call us to the human state but do not impose one specific representation of a particular person upon us; and by expressing movement (or stillness, or both) in his work, he is able to capture particular moments in the human experience.

I think it is rare for an artist to successfully make the viewer feel involved in what is going on in a painting, but Salva accomplishes this. Not only did I feel I was a witness to moments in a human experience, but also a participant absorbed it, when standing in front of his work.

J. Salva, mi agradecimiento por haberme permitido escribir sobre su arte!

My thanks to J. Salva for allowing me to comment on his art for this blog!

*Quotes are by W. V. Maturana, Universidad de Chile, taken from J. Salva’s November 2010 exhibit catalogue, Casa de la Cultura, Antofagasta.

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