An odd, but lasting, friendship

Longtime collaborators Dick Brewer and Al Wadzinski show at Gallery 360

FULTON — What has drawn artists Dick Brewer and Al Wadzinski together?

The two display recent works at Gallery 360 in Fulton this month in a joint exhibition that has become something of a fall tradition at the gallery. But, superficially, at least, these comrades in art seem to have little in common.

Wadzinski is a found-object sculptor who sees the potential in a world littered with debris. Brewer, his long-time collaborator, is a painter, albeit a painter whose work is enlivened by sculptural elements.

Wadzinski, whose sculptures are often representational, admitted he tends to "chicken-out" on abstract work. Brewer, by contrast, works almost exclusively in abstraction.

"I’m an abstract painter at heart," he said recently, surrounded by his painted Plexiglas works in the studio behind his Southeast Minneapolis home.

Brewer, the older of the two, did most of the talking during an hour-long interview, puffing away at a series of long Camel cigarettes. Wadzinski, meanwhile, quietly watched from a wheelchair (which the able-bodied artist chose for comfort).

The two have an obvious Odd Couple dynamic, and they play it up for company. But their 20-year artistic partnership has flourished through a mutual respect for each other’s work and opinions.

"Collaboration is very delicate proposition," Brewer acknowledged. They make it work.

"We’re able to criticize each other’s work, and [we] take it well," Wadzinski explained.

They also share what Brewer called an "extraordinary" sense of humor. He didn’t bother to elaborate, except to hint that if any of their personal jokes were made public it could land either of them "in a straightjacket or prison."

Wadzinski smiled, slyly.

There was evidence of that surreal humor hanging on Brewer’s cluttered studio walls: a photograph of "Phyllis Diller in Hawaii," a temporary sculpture they constructed with frayed bits of plastic, driftwood and a rotting fish carcass.

They crafted the comedian’s likeness during an artistic pilgrimage to the Big Island that Brewer called "one of the high points in our collaborative experience."

"We had a patron out there," Wadzinski said. "We’d go and fill his house with art."

During the visit, they traveled down to South Point, also known as Ka Lae, the southernmost tip of the island and a collection point for all the free-floating flotsam roaming the world’s oceans. They’d gather up bits and pieces on the beach, create sculpture and watch it wash away with the tide.

It must have been right up Wadzinski’s alley. After all, he’s done something similar with a local polluted
waterway.

Tens of thousands of Minnesotans saw the sculptor’s work — whether they knew it or not — at the 2002 State Fair. Standing guard outside the Department of Natural Resources building was "Toxic Avenger," a towering beaver built from junk fished out of the Mississippi River.

Wadzinski works in a similar vein, but on a smaller scale, for "Behind the 8-Ball" at Gallery 360.

"Bird of Prey" resembles the toucan from the old Guinness promotional posters with its scrap-metal beak and golf club plumage. But the bright-eyed bird is ready for combat: its puffed-out chest is a drooping bandolier.

Wadzinski said he’s been doing a lot of "fins and feathers" sculptures recently. A warped and rusted metal grille forms the fluid body of "Siamese Fighting Fish," also on display.

"I like to have them look bionic, sometimes," he said.

"The kids love it," he added. "They study it better than the adults sometimes."

In his contribution to the show, Brewer continues to experiment with a technique he struck on in the late ’60s, while still in art school.

He grinds and gouges sheets of clear acrylic — commonly known as Plexiglas — then fills in the pits and valleys with paint. When viewed from the unaltered side of the Plexiglas, the combination of relief carving and painting leads to wild juxtapositions of both color and texture.

In "Matsuda Symphony," neon bubbles and Japanese characters fly past, sending the viewer on a light-speed trip through neon Tokyo. But floating in the foreground are wriggling blobs, looking like the denizens of a petri dish. Odd indeed.

These works on acrylic require mastery of a mind-bending technique. Since he is working from the back of a see-through "canvas" Brewer must work in reverse, applying the colors in the foreground and then filling in the background.

There are no strict collaborations in this show — the artists created all of their pieces individually.

Still, each exerts an unseen influence on the other in these solo efforts. Brewer listens to Wadzinski’s advice, just as he is free to pluck an extraneous piece from one of his friend’s works-in-progress.

All the behind-the-scenes back-and-forth raises an interesting question: If you like Brewer’s art, will you like Wadzinski’s, too? And vice-versa?

"Not always," Wadzinski said. "In fact, there are only a few people who really do."