David Byrne, the artist, is totally connected

Today’s David Byrne is all about connection. “Everybody ofcome to my house / And I’ll never be alone,” he sang on Broadway in “American Utopia,” half playful, half fretful, still open. His online magazine, “Reason to have fun” – calling itself “a tonic for turbulent times” – lists all the ways that people are pulling together to ensure that the real world doesn’t fall into place. narrow prison. And on February 2, he recreated this theme of connection at Pace Gallery in Chelsea with a show of 48 bizarre line drawings spanning 20 years of art, from his “tree” series. It was in the early 00s until “Dingbats” he did during the 2020-2021 lockdown.

Byrne’s drawings are modest undertakings, not much larger than a standard sheet of paper. They compare perhaps with illustrations by George Cruikshank for “Oliver Twist,” or by John Tenniel for “Alice in Wonderland.” But when I stopped by the gallery two weeks ago to see them hang, I saw him about 15 feet in the air, standing on a hydraulic lift as he labeled the branches of a huge tree that he painted on the wall which is a good thing. 20 feet tall.

Tree drawings are like org charts: They define relationships. This movie, called “Human Content” and shown at super-large scale on a bare, white wall, is different in ways unique to Byrne. It not only shows branches but also roots, and while branches are labeled with familiar human categories – “nephew”, “son”, “cousin”, “aunt”, “friends” – roots take on the names of things that in one way or another affect our lives: “road”, “sand”, “box”, “word”, “wheel”, “” hole”, “sauce”.

Staring and holding a huge paintbrush, Byrne added the word “singer” to a twig high in the treetop.

With his drawings of trees, he explained later as we sat down at a giant conference table in the backstage area of ​​the gallery, “I was trying to imagine the connections between these things. that we don’t usually think are connected. I just thought, let’s see if I can let my imagination run wild with that. If I can imagine connections where connections are not normally supposed to exist. “

This whole connection seems out of character for someone who rose to prominence in the 1970s New Wave scene as the lead singer of Talking Heads, the avatar of alienation. “As a young person, I am not socially comfortable,” he confessed. “But as often happens with those things, a lot of people just grow from it.”

Sometimes it’s almost alarming: “I can talk to strangers now,” he continued. “They don’t know who I am, they don’t know what I do or anything like that, but sometimes I go hiking and if someone is on the road, I make sure to say hi to them. . I also do it on the street, in New York. If it’s at night and you’re walking down a certain street, I can say hello. “


“It got me in trouble. Maybe I’m compensating, maybe I am – but most of the time, it seems like a good thing to do, which is to acknowledge someone’s existence. ”

Byrne’s dingbat drawings, 115 of which were collected in a book called “”World History (in Dingbats)“Which Phaidon published on February 16, talks about the death of disconnection – specifically the kind the pandemic has imposed on us. Byrne started making them in the spring of 2020 after an editor on the Reasons to Be Cheerful website asked if he could create some simple decorative drawings they could use to subdivide the column types. – type of printer commonly called “dingbats. “It doesn’t matter: He doesn’t seem to have to do much else, sitting there locked up in his West Chelsea loft. But soon he realized he was drawing pictures like “Infinite Sofa”, a sofa that seems to last forever but has people sitting on it too far apart to connect and “TMI” , showing a person being flattened by a giant smartphone.

“I didn’t start painting the response pictures to the whole pandemic, the shutdowns and everything else,” Byrne said. “But eventually I realized, oh, this is what you’re doing.” (The paintings in the exhibition are for sale for $8,000 each.)

What Byrne didn’t do at the time was write songs. “Now I can start writing again,” he said. “But in the depths of the pandemic, there is nothing. Nothing. I mean, I can cooperate with other people” – like “Who saw the storm?” His recently released cover art was recorded with Yo La Tengo for a Yoko Ono tribute album put together by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. (Ono recorded the haunting song in 1970.)

“It was pretty easy,” he said. “But I thought, I haven’t been able to process this – how do I feel about it, what it means. I can’t write about health policy in one song. But somehow with drawing, I will start doing something and it will flow. ”

On the other hand, Byrne makes very little distinction between art and music – an attitude he shares with art school friends like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. Like them, he occupies a nominal space where music turns to performance art and art tends to Conceptualism, meaning that, among other things, it is more likely to take the form of an arrangement. rather than traditional painting or sculpture. This helps explain why his performance at Pace, although focused on the conventional medium of drawing, was titled “How I Learned Irrational Logic”, a contradiction that seems to as fact regarding the connection between art and music. As Byrne explains in a brief essay that hangs on the gallery wall, “Both art and music seem to ignore the rational and logical part of the mind – rather, they are understood by the multitude of parts of the collection. brains are connected. It’s a different kind of understanding. The effect of this connection is pleasant, even ecstatic.”

Byrne’s artistic education ended in the early ’70s, when he dropped out, first at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and then at the Maryland College of Art in his hometown, Baltimore. His student work included things like questionnaires about different states of the union. “It doesn’t get much traction,” he admits. “I had questions like, in your opinion which state has the best shape?” He let out a short laugh. “Not going very far with that.”

He also didn’t expect to get far with music, but when Chris Frantz, a RISD student who would become the drummer for the small group they had formed in New York, told him about the club. going on called Bowery CBGB, they still decided to audition. It was early 1975; In June, Talking Heads opened its doors to the Ramones. Two years later, they connected with Eno in London. John Cale, a former member of the Velvet Underground, saw them a few times at CBGB, and he took Eno to the little basement club in Covent Garden, where they were playing.

It was a good match. A few months later, Eno mentioned them in a song called “King’s Lead Hat”, an anagram of “Speaking Heads”. And in the years that followed, he helped them discover the magical inverted African rhythms that became increasingly popular on the group’s next three LPs he produced. He has been a main Byrne’s collaborator ever since, from “My life in ghost dust,” released in 1981, for “American Utopia”, the album that spawned the Broadway show, eight of which contained ten songs they wrote together.

In 2014, when Byrne was in London to produce for the National Theatre “Here Lies Love,” his famous musical – Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it “poperetta” – about Imelda Marcos, Eno introduced him to Mala Gaonkar, a hedge fund manager who co-founded the Surgo Fund, an “action tank” that describes itself as addressing public health issues like AIDS and lack of access to toilets. Byrne has done art installations before – most notably “Play the Building,” a “sound sculpture” that New York magazine called “a marriage between industry and the supernatural.” mundane”. But this encounter has spawned Byrne’s most ambitious art project to date: an immersive art and science experience slated to premiere this summer in Denver.

As Byrne describes it, he and Gaonkar “are both interested in presenting scientific research in a way that is more accessible to the public. Science used to be called an art form, but now they’re very separate, and we thought, oh, can we put that together? “

The initial result is a 2016 installation at Pace Art + Technology, the gallery’s Silicon Valley arm, is called “The Presentation Institute: Neuropathology.” A test of sorts in itself, it presents recent work on psychology and neuroscience in a game-like format. (Wired describes it as “a little weird” but “very cool.”) There are moral dilemmas — let’s say you’re a drone operator and a girl is selling bread first. a safe house of terrorists? – and perceptual distortions.

“There are things that don’t work out,” Byrne admits — like a quiz based on research led by the Princeton psychologist. Alexander Todorov which shows that people can predict which candidate will win an election just by glancing at their faces. “They get it right about 70 percent of the time, which is scary,” Byrne says. The problem is, “number one, people don’t like receiving such bad news. Also, it’s not based on what you as an individual voted, it’s an aggregate of what people voted for – so people go, Wait a minute, I didn’t pick that one ! And they were right. ”

This August, if all goes according to plan, a fully refurbished and expanded version of the Silicon Valley exhibit will open in Denver in a former Army medical supply depot. Titled “Theater of the Mind” and presented by the Denver Performing Arts Center’s Off-Center program, it includes election questions and other elements in favor of the narrative approach. which is somehow, I know, related to Byrne’s. life. It also “shows how easily our senses are manipulated,” said Charlie Miller, curator of Off-Center.

And the title? “It was a phrase Oliver Sacks used,” Byrne recalls. “He said the brain seems to be some kind of theater that presents us with things – it’s not real. You are watching a show. “

I suppose it proves that even if we can connect, reality is a more difficult matter.

David Byrne: How I Learned About Irrational Logic

From February 2 to March 19, Pace Gallery, 540 West 25th Street, Chelsea; speedgallery.com. On February 7 at 7 p.m. Pace Live will feature David Byrne in conversation with John Wilson, host of the HBO show “How To With John Wilson.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/27/arts/design/david-byrne-pace-talking-heads.html David Byrne, the artist, is totally connected

Fry Electronics Team

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