"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 it's something he's stuck with ever since—despite earning most of his money as a surrealist painter. Looking around his jam-packed studio of oddities, it's 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 Barrett's sketchbook and attempted to build three of the sculptures in it. The thief's presentation to the class—which Barrett witnessed—didn't 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 aren't very toy-like, unless you're imagining Santa's-workshop-meets-slaughterhouse.
"I was at a show," Barrett says, recalling the horse's 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 we're all beating dead horses?' I went home and started this painting. It's called "Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves," and it's 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 Barrett's first solo show since joining owner and artist Andrew Estrada's 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 mother's 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 can't tell me I'm 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 hasn't 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 Barrett's 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 can't stop.' Every artist wants that!" Barrett's piece for Bigby, called "Mother of our Invention," is almost done. A literal and symbolic African landscape has taken shape, with Bob Marley's 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. "It's always going to be exactly what I'm thinking and feeling, unless I'm 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; it's a 6-by-6-foot, acrylic-oncanvas work that's wired with light bulbs.
As for the paintings Barrett creates for himself, the ideas come from his dreams. "I'm very fortunate—I've 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 you're growing up. But I don't 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 he's 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 can't get serious—it's one of my problems," he says. "I don't 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. That's incorrect. The new venue will be in the Weber Bread Bakery building in Logan Heights. We're sorry for the error.