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.

Testimonials about Wormley's altruism are common among other scene veterans: "Bill's gone beyond the call of duty providing space for artists to show," says Thomas Barry, who has owned several art galleries in town through the past few decades.

"He's put a tremendous amount of energy in getting artist-run venues going," says local painter Melissa Stang.

Says Brewer: "This guy has long been in one way or another the backbone of the local scene. Acme was the only place happening in town for a stretch. He just didn't have enough outreach to the patrons."

"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

Wormley's home studio and gallery is just a block or two away from the Matchbox Café. A visit there a week before the opening reveals Wormley to have more color in his face and a bit more energy in his step. After months of a cancer scare, he has found out that his stomach ailment is (only) a perforated ulcer. The basement where Acme Visual Arts makes its home is raw, with bare stone walls on three sides, a toilet hidden behind a curtain, and colored pieces of carpet puzzled together on the floor. In one corner of the room, a diminutive raised stage is half hidden behind a red velvet curtain. In another corner, a small wet bar juts out slightly from the wall.

Wormley's new artworks are laid out around the room on the floor, not yet hung on the walls. Mostly smallish--at most two feet in any dimension--they exhibit a diversity of styles and approaches. Wormley describes how he worked incessantly to achieve the seemingly spontaneous explosion of color in one larger painting, perhaps four feet by three feet, called "Brain Dragnet." He squeezed paint out of a turkey baster; painted on glass, peeled the skin off the surface, flipped it, and slapped the reverse side onto the canvas; scraped out the chunky contents of paint buckets and attached that to the surface as well; and so on. For another larger painting, Wormley has dripped a clear plastic emulsion called Roplex onto rusted steel beams, peeled up the resulting odd shapes, and tacked the now-brownish-red glittering pieces onto a canvas. "I once tried to come up with a name for this style," he says. "The best I could think of was 'neo-brutalism.'"

Through all the diverse images and experiments, Wormley's oeuvre holds together by virtue of his tendency to play with materials and combine in fresh ways. There was a time, too, when his work made its mark on the art-going public. According to Thomas Barry, who showed the artist's work at the Thomas Barry Gallery in numerous shows in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Wormley was a local mainstay: "I always thought he was a tremendous talent. He had so much imagination for using common objects and surplus stuff that people did not pay attention to....He was a favorite among artists. They loved what he did and were always amazed at what he came up with."

The promise of Wormley's early career was evident in a series of striking local exhibitions in the 1980s and early 1990s that were written up in local newspapers and magazines. For example, one critic, Mason Riddle, lauded Wormley's work in the February 1986 issue of Artpaper, a now-extinct magazine devoted to the local art scene: "No one in the Twin Cities makes art like W.C. Wormley. Maybe not anywhere else in the world (except Zurich in 1916). And certainly not in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where his exhibition "Wormalessence: Extra-Strength Art" made an indelible impression--good or bad--on those adventurous enough to visit Granite City." She goes on to summarize the whole of the show as "a sophisticated vision, teamed with an unpredictable wit...."

Closer to the mainstream, the Star Tribune's Mary Abbe called Wormley "a Minnesota original" in a brief piece she wrote for his 1991 show "Bill State Park" at the Thomas Barry Gallery.

With such reviews, it is no wonder Wormley found himself caught up in the contagious optimism about local art. "I did years' and years' worth of shows," he says of the 1980s. "There was a do-it-yourself kind of ethic. There was no need for grants and whatnot. I was successful for a long time. People actually bought stuff back then."

"The Eighties were so good to artists," says Dick Brewer, "that everybody thought they were going to last forever. However, it all turned out to be a function of trend, rather than anybody's deep pockets. All companies wanted to look as good as the next company. You had all these CEOs saying, 'Get a consultant in here. We've got to look as good as 3M.' Now everything is beholden to stockholders."

Brewer is talking about the Eighties atmosphere that saw local corporations snapping up art from area galleries--acting as an engine for the creative market. But the Reagan Tax Reform Act of 1986 closed some corporate tax loopholes, including one that had encouraged write-offs for art purchases. In time art buying fell off among corporations and the public. Galleries felt an inexorable pressure to close up shop. Soon the Minneapolis art boom had yielded to a bust cycle.

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