Hanging out in Bret Barrett's Downtown studio is like hanging out at a kooky toy maker's wacky workshop, or maybe the bedroom of Sid Phillips, the crazy neighbor kid from Toy Story who has a penchant for dissecting toys to make freakish re-creations.

The clicking, spinning and chomping sounds made by Barrett's kinetic sculptures and artwork is almost deafening. It's the complete opposite of Barrett himself, who speaks softly and patiently about his art and upcoming exhibition, Engineered Truths and Time Traveled Devices, which opens with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at Visual (3524 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights).

At the exhibition, on view through Oct. 5, you'll see the work that's made Barrett stand out in San Diego's art scene. His surrealist paintings and collages each come alive with the aid of a machine or toy that becomes part of the piece, telling its full story with each movement—like "Mechanism of Melancholia," inspired by the Chinese proverb You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair. The painting features the silhouette of a woman's face with her hair forming a bird's nest. A bird is perched on her head as two real pigeon feathers snap back and forth with the help of parts from a cassette recorder and DVD player, making it look as though the feathers are engaged in a futile attempt to shoo away the bird. This one is Barrett's favorite among the pieces in the show.

But while the art reveals the extent of Barrett's imagination, when it comes to explaining it, he struggles.

"You know, when you're young, you just want to do it," says Barrett, 47, whose DIY sensibility was instilled by his parents. "You don't really think about what it is that you're up to. I think as I've gotten older, I don't know that any of those questions are answered in my mind, but I think there is a cohesiveness."

In fact, Barrett regularly gains new perspectives on his art.

"I love how many times I'll be at a show and I had a complete intention for what the piece meant, and then I'll hear someone in the audience saying what they think it is, and it's something completely different, yet entirely valid," he says.

The inspiration for his paintings and sculptures varies. As a result, it's been hard for for him to hone in on a single motivation for each piece.

Maybe that's because his pieces come together serendipitously. Since collage is a major component in his work, Barrett collects toys, knick-knacks, magazines and other found scraps. Often, he dumps out the basket containing these items and the pieces happen to land in a way that inspires him. He simply cuts and pastes the pieces how they land.

However it comes about, Barrett says the objective is for people to enjoy his art. That's all any artist can ask for.


Write to alexz@sdcitybeat.com. You can also bug her on Twitter.

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