The hardest part was getting the fur off, Bret Barrett says, reaching for a cord attached to the electronic toy horse on top of his workbench. Barrett started mastering kinetic sculptures like this one back in art school, and its something hes stuck with ever since—despite earning most of his money as a surrealist painter. Looking around his jam-packed studio of oddities, its clear that being a mad electrician is what makes Barrett tick.
I was taking apart VCRs and vacuum cleaners while I was in painting class, building stuff off the canvas, Barrett says, and I thought, These motors probably still work; I should use that to create motion. Since then, everyone I know brings me broken appliances and toys.
A classmate once stole Barretts sketchbook and attempted to build three of the sculptures in it. The thiefs presentation to the class—which Barrett witnessed—didnt work out.
It made me feel proud, he says. I realized that not everyone can do this.
When Barrett plugs the horse in, it lights up, makes noises and jerks to and fro. The plastic skeleton and exposed electrical guts arent very toy-like, unless youre imagining Santas-workshop-meets-slaughterhouse.
I was at a show, Barrett says, recalling the horses inspiration, and one of the local art critics was having a conversation about how painting is dead—but they were saying that 100 years ago. I made some comment to him like, So, you think were all beating dead horses? I went home and started this painting. Its called Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves, and its about my love for painting.
This, he continues, motioning toward the Franken-toy, is going to be the ghost of the horse that I painted. Standing in the middle of the gallery down there, it should be pretty great.
Moving in Shadows of Colorful Mind, which opens with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at Zepf Alt. Gallery (1150 Seventh Ave., Downtown), is Barretts first solo show since joining owner and artist Andrew Estradas basement gallery and studios two years ago. The show will feature 25 news works, including his funky kinetic sculptures and mind-tickling paintings.
Barrett, who grew up in Green Bay, Wisc., was artistic at a young age—his mothers arts-and-crafts gatherings left a mark on him. But in high school, he wanted to be a scientist. That is, until his math and science teachers called him stupid.
That turned me into a rebellious, punk-rock kid in the 80s, he laughs. I thought, They cant tell me Im too stupid to be an artist.
After being fired from the last day job he held, Barrett was working one day in his North Park garage when a guy in a Lamborghini pulled up and, within a day, bought most of the artwork Barrett had stored in his apartment. It was his big break, and he hasnt looked back.
A piece commissioned by Atari Bigby, a defensive back for the San Diego Chargers, is taking up a lot of his time these days. Bigby stopped by Barretts studio earlier this year and said to him, I know you can do the painting I want, Barrett says. He told me, I want a painting that when people look at it, they cant stop. Every artist wants that! Barretts piece for Bigby, called Mother of our Invention, is almost done. A literal and symbolic African landscape has taken shape, with Bob Marleys face appearing in a mountainside and a tree with the shadowy frame of a nude woman spanning its trunk, her dreadlocked hair growing into branches.
My paintings are my own personal journal, my diary, Barrett says. Its always going to be exactly what Im thinking and feeling, unless Im doing it for someone else.
The Bigby commission led to another job, this time with the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County: Electric Brain will be on display in Moving in Shadows of Colorful Mind; its a 6-by-6-foot, acrylic-oncanvas work thats wired with light bulbs.
As for the paintings Barrett creates for himself, the ideas come from his dreams. Im very fortunate—Ive always had a very twisted imagination and twisted dreams, he says. I used to be afraid of my own mind—in the fight between what you want and need when youre growing up. But I dont fear it now.
One dream has been recurring for years, and Barrett says he can get back to where he left off through meditation. A couple of times hes even been able to see a whole sculpture and walk around it—and then build it just as he dreamed.
An afternoon with Barrett is an adventure in and of itself, filled with all the oddities in his little workshop and lots of laughing.
I cant get serious—its one of my problems, he says. I dont want art to be an experience of intellectual elitism; I want it to be for everybody. I want anyone in the world from any country, any background, to look at my work and smile and laugh.
Last week on this page, we reported that the artists behind Ice Gallery in North Park will launch a new venue inside the Wonder Bread Factory in East Village. Thats incorrect. The new venue will be in the Weber Bread Bakery building in Logan Heights. Were sorry for the error.