When Barela made his debut on the national scene, he was hailed by Time as the "discovery of the year". The New York Times cited his work for showing "real force... there is crude, honest, personal expression in the small carvings". The Museum of Modern Art proclaimed him the "most dramatic discovery made in American art for the past several years".
While Barela did not remain a part of the national art scene during his lifetime, he became a legendary figure because of his deep spirituality and monumental talent as an artist. Today in New Mexico, nearly every santero (an artist who creates sacred images) recognizes Barela as a major inspiration.
Barela's art is not easily classified although his carvings display parallels to Romanesque art in their narrative quality and to Modernism in their sophisticated definition of space. There is also the aspect of the primitive, or of eros, as Barela is in touch with the life force, the deepest level of humanity shared by all peoples and all cultures. In this way his imagery suggests the tribal art of Polynesia, Africa, Meso-America, and the pre-Christian Middle East.
Barela was an authentic artist. While European Modernists such as Picasso strived to recreate archetypal images, for Barela, this came naturally. The impact of his carvings is visceral rather than intellectual, capable of calling up tears or laughter or wonderment.
The artist made his home in Cañon, New Mexico, outside of Taos. He never leamed much about writing, and he spent much of his life working on the farms and ranches of the Rocky Mountain states. He lived and died in poverty. His tragic death by fire took place in the workshop where he had carved some of the most profound art of our time.
Driven by the undeniable need to create, Barela's art transcends time and place. His work comes from the roots of the land and Hispano society of New Mexico. The imagery he made, from the erotic to the tragic to the religious, shows individuals bearing the struggles of life. Barela eludes the many traps into which the work of lesser artists fall to achieve penetrating insights into our deepest emotions. This can be said of only a handfiil of artists living in any given time.