Into the Wild

Painter/searcher peels back brain, blobs leak out

Blobs! Blobs! We're surrounded by blobs, alive and floating, giant inverted teardrops with curvy tails and faces that radiate mystery. Allen Brewer's studio is awash with the creatures--pink, blue, tentacled, horned. Even blobs in love--all in acrylic paint on smallish panels. One masked, sad-eyed blob aesthete rides inside an ornately carved boat, tail up, curious. The blobs' creator is tall and thin, with a short, sharp shock of sandy hair that makes him seem preternaturally alert, as if its follicular thrust came from surplus synaptic electricity rather than product. "Thank you for calling them 'blobs,' rather than 'sperm people,' which some other people have called them," says Brewer as we leave the converted bedroom.

Sebastian, the painter's relentlessly charming cat, leaps down the stairs of Brewer's huge north Minneapolis home ahead of us as we reconvene in the living room around a massive red brick fireplace. "Sometimes, I think this house is too big for one person and wonder if I should get a roommate," Brewer says.

Brewer has inherited an artistic legacy that seems well worth perpetuating, so perhaps he was just unconsciously planning for progeny when he bought the house. Both of his brothers are artists, as are his father, uncle Dick, and Rogue Taxidermist cousin Serena. His great-grandfather Edward, one of six artists sired by Nicholas Brewer, created the image of the Cream of Wheat man hanging above the blobs in the studio.

"Nicholas's work is all over Minnesota," says Brewer. "The State Capitol, the Cathedral, banks. He traveled in bourgeois circles, hung out with James Hill." Nicholas, still admired for his landscapes and portraits, also painted Ulysses S. Grant, and was so popular among U.S. senators that for a while he had a studio in the Senate Office Building.

His great-great-grandson's artistic bent first emerged pre-kindergarten. "I drew a really surreal cow--green, with eight legs," Brewer recalls. "I knew it was off, but I still liked it. At the time, it felt important to me. I felt that I was different, that I saw things that other people didn't see, things that are unexplainable. That's why I'm so fascinated with death."

That fascination is evident in "The Sweet Hereafter," a collection of acrylics up at Gallery 360 through January 15. Each of the show's works portrays a different afterlife, populated by everything from squirrels to the blobby ancestors of Brewer's studio denizens. Particularly striking is Protector, a depiction of a large, black, catlike creature with long ears and a sweetly sad human face standing watch over a group of beasts similar to itself, but much smaller, and lacking anthropomorphic attributes. Humans are all but absent from the exhibition--with one exception, an idealized portrait of Remedios Varo, one of several female Surrealist artists whose work has only started to get the attention it deserves in the past decade or so.

"A really great art teacher introduced me to surrealism in high school," the 31-year-old Brewer says. "I started out with the usual suspects: Dali, Tanguey, Carrington. But not until five years ago did I discover Varo, at a show in Mexico City. It completely peeled my brain back and made me rethink what I was doing."

Turning away from what he now perceives as a non-intuitively user-oriented approach to subject matter, Brewer embarked on a more idiosyncratic course. "After seeing how personal Varo's paintings were, I began to get a little more selfish with my imagery, painting exactly what was in my head without caring whether anyone found it comprehensible or sane."

But his grand obsessions--usually assets for artists as prolific as Brewer--remained largely unchanged. "The Sweet Hereafter" is a continuation of his college thesis. "I compared and contrasted the afterlife beliefs of five major religions and found out that each religion becomes like a raffle that you can sign up to in order to find the best outcome for your mortal life--like a game. I wanted to tackle that issue because it's the one question that no one can answer. I constantly feed off the mystery, and never take any one person's ideal of the afterlife as fact, 'cause it's impossible."

So is Brewer's schedule. In addition to painting like a fiend (he also has a show up at St. Paul coffee shop Cupcake, where he exhibits frequently), he teaches at his alma mater, the College of Visual Art in St. Paul, and maintains a healthy career in illustration that dates back to 1997, when agent Joanie Bernstein nabbed him one day after graduation. "A designer friend of hers had come to the senior show," he recalls. "I'd created about 250 hand-painted business cards and tried to throw as much work as I could up on the wall. I've always been an overachiever."

Brewer's past clients include United Airlines, Target, Time-Warner, the Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Smithsonian, Better Homes and Gardens, and Mother Jones, to name but a few. His favorite employer to date is the Washington Post. "For three years," he says, "I illustrated Jean Marie Laskas's weekly column. It was a great gig; the art director there was incredible. And I always knew I'd be working."

While he enjoys illustration, his heart belongs to fine art. He's particularly passionate about the 15th-century Flemish painters, and folk art. In 1997, the latter interest led him indirectly to the then-nascent Lowbrow movement, already a refuge (and marketing catchall) for unrepentant popists and neo-surrealists ranging from Robert Williams to Mark Ryden.

"One of the first things my agent said to me was, 'you need to find what you do best.' I spent the summer painting and painting and learned that I really enjoyed folk art. I traded canvas for wood and started exploring the possibilities--not with doing straight folk art, which would have been a bastardization--but just seeing how I could simplify things in a way similar to theirs. About the same time, I started to realize how big Lowbrow was in L.A, and that what I was doing was becoming popular."

Enough, it seems, to land him a place in this year's annual group exhibition at La Luz de Jesus--birthplace of the movement and the gallery that inspired Tom Hazelmyer to open Ox-Op. There, Brewer's work will be shown alongside the exalted likes of Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman, and Shag. Sadly, the blobs upstairs will spend some time there before we get so much as a glimpse of them--unless he generates more in the interim, a prospect that seems pretty likely.

"I came across them [the blobs] while preparing very quickly for a show with 90 pieces," he says. "The possibilities of something round and serpentine that could spread, break up, feather out--do all these different things--intrigued me from the minute I discovered them. I was just playing. Plus, I'm sick of everyone else's Unknown, the typical skinny, big-eyed aliens and whatnot. I'd rather make my own."

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