David Byrne is all about connection these days. “Everybody” come to my house/And I’m never gonna be alone’, he sings on Broadway in ‘American Utopia’, half happy, half nervous, still open. His online magazine, “Reasons to Be Merry” — which bills itself as “a tonic for tumultuous times” — catalogs all the ways people work together to ensure the world doesn’t go to hell in a handbasket. And on Feb. 2, he’s revisiting this theme of connection at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery with a show of 48 whimsical line drawings spanning 20 years of art making, from his early ’00s ‘boom’ series to the ‘dingbats’ he made. . made in lockdown in 2020-2021.
Byrne’s drawings are modest affairs, not much larger than a standard sheet of paper. They may be compared to George Cruikshank’s illustrations for ‘Oliver Twist’ or John Tenniel’s for ‘Alice in Wonderland’. But when I passed by the gallery two weeks ago to see them being hung, I found him some five feet high in the air, standing on a hydraulic lift lifting the branches of a huge tree he had on a wall. signed, gave a good idea. 20 feet high.
Tree drawings are like org charts: they define relationships. This one, titled “Human Content” and superscale spread across the stark, white wall, is different in ways unique to Byrne. It shows not only branches, but also roots, and while the branches are labeled with well-known human categories – “cousins”, “boys”, “cousins”, “aunts”, “friends” – the roots bear the names of things one way or another affects our life: “sugar”, “sand”, “boxes”, “words”, “wheels”, “holes”, “sauces”.
Staring intently and waving an oversized paint stick, Byrne added the word “singers” to a branch high in the treetop.
With his tree drawings, he explained afterwards as we sat at a huge conference table in a back office part of the gallery: ‘I try to imagine connections between things that we don’t normally think are connected. I just thought, let’s see if I can let my imagination run wild with that. If I can imagine connections that are usually not assumed to exist.”
This whole thing about connectedness may seem strange to someone who rose to prominence in the 1970s New Wave scene as the lead singer of Talking Heads, the avatar of alienation. “As a youngster, I felt socially uncomfortable,” he confessed. “But as often happens with those things, a lot of people just kind of grow out of it.”
Sometimes to an almost alarming degree: “Now I can talk to strangers,” he continued. “They don’t know who I am, they don’t know what I’m doing or anything like that, but sometimes I go for a walk and if someone crosses the path I inevitably say hello to them. I also do it on the street, in New York. If it’s nighttime and you’re walking down a street, maybe I’d say hello.’
“It got me in trouble. Maybe I’m compensating, maybe I’m — but most of the time it seems like a nice thing to do, acknowledge someone’s existence.”
Byrne’s dingbat drawings, 115 of which have been collected in a book titled “A History of the World (in Dingbats)” that Phaidon will publish on Feb. 16, deals with the toll of disconnection—particularly the kind that give us imposed by the pandemic. Byrne started making them in the spring of 2020 after an editor on the website Reasons to Be Merry asked him if he could make some simple, decorative drawings they could use to break up columns of letters — the kind of thing printers do. called dingbats. No problem: it wasn’t like he had much else to do, locked up there in his West Chelsea loft. But he soon found himself making drawings like ‘Infinite Sofa’, of a sofa that seems to go on forever but people are too far apart to connect, and ‘TMI’, which shows a person being thrown flat. by a huge smartphone.
“I didn’t mean to make drawings that reacted to the whole pandemic and the lockdown and everything else,” Byrne said. “But eventually I realized, oh, this is what you’re doing.” (The drawings in the show are for sale, priced at $8,000 each.)
What Byrne wasn’t doing at the time was writing songs. “Now I’m starting to write again,” he said. “But during the depth of the pandemic, nothing. Nothing. I mean, I could collaborate with other people” – like “Who Has Seen the Wind?”, his recently released cover, recorded with Yo La Tengo for a Yoko Ono tribute album curated by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. (Ono recorded the haunting song in 1970.)
“Those were pretty easy,” he said. “But I thought, I haven’t been able to process this thing – how I think about it, what it means. I can’t write in a song about health policy. But somehow I started drawing just to do something and it flowed just out.”
Furthermore, Byrne makes little distinction between art and music – an attitude he shares with art school alums such as Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. Like them, he occupies a liminal space where music transitions into performance art and art has a conceptual slant, meaning, among other things, that it takes the form of an installation rather than traditional painting or sculpture. This helps explain why his show at Pace, while focused on the conventional medium of drawing, is titled “How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic,” an apparent contradiction that actually has to do with the interconnection of art and music. As Byrne explains in a short essay hanging on the gallery’s wall, “Both art and music seem to bypass the rational and logical parts of the mind — rather, they are understood by countless parts of the brain that are interconnected. It is a different kind of understanding. The effect of this interconnectedness is enjoyable, even ecstatic.”
Byrne’s art education ended in the early 1970s, when he dropped out of, first, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, then the Maryland Institute College of Art in his hometown, Baltimore. His student work consisted of things like questionnaires about various states of the union. “It didn’t get much traction,” he admitted. “I had questions like, which state do you think has the best shape?” He laughed briefly. “That won’t get you very far.”
He didn’t expect to get very far with music either, but when Chris Frantz, a fellow RISD student who had become the drummer for the band they formed in New York, told him about this lively club on the Bowery called CBGB, they decided to audition anyway. to do. It was early 1975; in June, Talking Heads opened to the Ramones. Two years later they came into contact with Eno in London. John Cale, once of the Velvet Underground, had seen them several times at CBGB, and he took Eno to the small basement club in Covent Garden where they played.
It was a good match. A few months later, Eno referred to them in a song called “King’s Lead Hat,” an anagram of “Talking Heads.” And in the years that followed, he helped them discover the wonderfully syncopated African polyrhythms that became increasingly common on the group’s next three LPs, which he produced. Since then, he has been a key collaborator of Byrne’s, from “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” released in 1981, to “American Utopia,” the album that spawned the Broadway show, which featured eight of the ten songs they composed. wrote .
In 2014, when Byrne was in London for the National Theater production of “Here Lies Love,” his hit musical – DailyExpertNews’ Ben Brantley called it a “poperetta” – about Imelda Marcos, Eno introduced him to Mala Gaonkar, a hedge fund manager who co-founded the Surgo Foundation, a self-proclaimed “action tank” that tackles public health problems such as AIDS and lack of access to toilets. Byrne had done art installations before — most notably “Playing the Building,” a “sound sculpture” that New York magazine called “a marriage between the industrial and the sublime.” But this encounter led to Byrne’s most ambitious art project yet: an immersive arts-and-science experience slated to debut in Denver this summer.
As Byrne describes it, he and Gaonkar “both had an interest in presenting scientific research in a way that was more accessible to the public. The sciences used to be called an art form, but now they’re very much separated, and we thought, oh, can we put that back together?”
The first result was a 2016 installation at Pace Art + Technology, the gallery’s Silicon Valley offshoot, called “The Institute Presents: Neurosociety.” It was itself an experiment of sorts, presenting recent work in psychology and neuroscience in a game-show-like format. (Wired described it as “a little weird,” but “very cool.”) There were moral dilemmas — suppose you were a drone operator and a girl was selling bread for a terrorist safehouse? – and perceptual distortions.
“There were things that didn’t work,” Byrne acknowledged — such as a quiz based on research led by Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov, which showed that people could predict which candidate would win an election simply by looking at their face. “They were right about 70 percent of the time, which is of course terrifying,” Byrne said. The problem was: “First of all, people didn’t like to receive such bad news. Also, it’s not based on what you as an individual voted for, it’s a total of what everyone else voted for – so people would say, Wait a minute, I didn’t pick that one! And they were right.”
In August, if all goes according to plan, a radically revamped and expanded version of the Silicon Valley show will open in Denver in a former military medical supplies depot. Titled “Theatre of the Mind” and presented by the Off-Center Program of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, it omits the election questions and other elements in favor of a narrative approach that somehow, so I’m told, related to Byrne’s life. It also “shows how easily our senses can be manipulated,” said Off-Center curator Charlie Miller.
And the title? “It’s an expression Oliver Sacks used,” Byrne recalls. “He said the brain seems to be a kind of theater that presents us things – it’s not real. You watch a program.”
Demonstrating, I think, that even if we can connect with each other, reality is a harder nut.
David Byrne: How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic
February 2 to March 19, Pace Gallery, 540 West 25th Street, Chelsea; pacegallery.com. On February 7 at 7 p.m., Pace Live presents David Byrne in conversation with John Wilson, host of the HBO series “How To With John Wilson.”