Wormley's Black Period

In the Eighties he was a rising art star on the downtown gallery scene. In the Nineties he was a stalwart of independent exhibition. Today Bill Wormley is sick, broke, and unsure why he should keep painting.

With bands such as Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and even Green Day playing at loft openings, crowds of artists and art lovers filled the weekend streets. As scenesters of that time recount it, weekend nights might involve hopping from any of the 20-odd galleries in the Wyman Building to nearby warehouse spaces and then on to the New French Bar. At the center of this milieu was Wormley. "Bill always knew where to go," says Gaard. "He was always calling to ask where the party was, or to tell you about a party."

At the Matchbox, Wormley recalls that time of his career with apparent fondness. He'd graduated from Minneapolis School of Art in the early 1970s, having studied with Gaard and a host of European guest lecturers that the school brought in. His hopes were high back then and, in fact, for a time it seemed he would be a breakout success. Like other artists of the era, Wormley took up residence in the downtown Warehouse District in the late 1970s and found places all over town to show his work, which he describes as old-school abstract with a heavy dada influence. "My stuff is lumpy and bumpy," Wormley says about his paintings, typically declining to explain their deeper meaning. He even finds it difficult to talk much about any personal content in his work. "I'm interested in purity and enlightenment in painting instead of narrative," he says. "I like to leave personal stuff out of it."

In some ways Wormley's artistic aesthetic is frozen in an eternal in-between state. He seems to have completely missed the explosion of the conceptual that occurred in the 1970s, and of identity art in the 1980s and 1990s, preferring to stay in retrograde art-for-art's-sake territory. In general his painting is energetic and filled with unusual color combinations and ironic bits of detritus--small toy frogs, faux fur, old-fashioned hair curlers, toy rings--that are used in such a way that they become intriguing visual elements. In some respects Wormley is a kind of contemporary shaman, a holy collector of the junk that people overlook. In his studio he has barrels full of odd stuff: Christmas ornaments, construction materials, Styrofoam.

"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts
Geoffrey P. Kroll
"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts

At the same time, Wormley's old-fashioned sense of abstraction is not necessarily outdated. Instead, it remains fresh by virtue of his funky and self-aware sensibility, and his willingness to goof around with materials. In fact, a number of playful, young, contemporary artists--such as Belgian-born painter Michael Frere, New York painter Joyce Kim, and local installation artist Charles Lume--seem to be reviving the abstract, love-of-plastic, "materialistic" approach that Wormley has never wavered from.

"I think his work is challenging," says fellow artist Dick Brewer, who graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art in 1969 and, like Wormley, has stayed in town working since then. "It is for the few rather than for the many. It has an abrasive, offhand edge that irritates people. Its radical, edgy qualities make it less palatable for mainstream collectors, but it is greater art for all that....I'm proud he's still alive, still working. It would've killed a lesser man."

"Being an artist is almost like being a priest," Wormley continues against the whoosh of traffic. He is beginning to warm up a bit as the afternoon wears on. "Doing art is seen as a frivolous thing, but only the artist takes time to look at the world anymore, to reach inside himself and dig something up....In certain respects our generation has failed. People are absolutely self-centered now, so attuned to entertaining themselves and buying gewgaws that they've lost the big picture....It's become hard for them to focus on art for any amount of time. It's a drive-thru world, and people only want instant gratification."

Wormley's long, slow aesthetic journey is amazing, especially considering that most of his peers fell off the track years ago. "There's nobody left from when I graduated art school," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the last guy. People just peel off or move away....Now, I'm keeping going just by momentum, I guess."

On the local scene, other artists of Wormley's age are said to be struggling with money and morale. But Wormley seems unique for his willingness to appraise his situation in public. Though, as an artist, he has struggled to maintain his health and financial well-being (and somewhere along the way, lost a marriage as well), Wormley is generally philosophical about the ways his life may have turned out had he given up art. "As an artist you keep going because you have to make work," he says, then adds, "I guess I'm looking for an incredibly rich woman to marry. And if she can show up by next week, that would be really helpful."

 

A few days after our meeting at the Matchbox Café, word comes through the grapevine (Wormley has no telephone with which to tell me himself) of the first show at Acme in more than two years. It is to be called "Painting by Moonlight," a show of Wormley's work as a benefit to get him back on his feet--an idea of friend and fellow scenester Doug Padilla. It is perhaps appropriate for Wormley to reach out now to his fellow artists in town for help. For a time in the 1990s, as the local art market crashed, Wormley's Acme Visual Arts gallery seemed like the only thing keeping the former scene alive.

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