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The Big Country

Head Talking Head Starts Making Sense

Ghosty Sandwiches, 1994
Butcher’s Files, NYC, 1998
Kudzu Landscape
Golden Hairs, Mexico City
Office worker, Rangoon
Indoor Arches
Team Pusher, Jaipur, India

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/21/2001

Indices: Recent and Ongoing Work

David Byrne

Maryland Institute College of Art's Decker Gallery through Dec. 16

It has been three decades since David Byrne dropped out of Maryland Institute College of Art. A head-to-toe inspection reveals that the 49-year-old Baltimore-bred musician is holding up very well for an iconic art-rock star who shot to fame two decades ago. The short hair atop his celebrated head is gray now, but it makes him seem distinguished. He's still as thin as he ever was. Byrne's body, known for its nervous stage moves when he was the frontperson for Talking Heads, is just as animated as he darts around MICA's Decker Gallery, installing a new exhibit. Even when he stops for a moment, his large eyes continue to dance around. You could get dizzy going tête-à-tête with David Byrne.

Curated by Rachel Knecht, a literature faculty member at MICA, Indices: Recent and Ongoing Work has at its heart an installation called "One Million Images." These digital photographs were all taken by Byrne during his world travels over the past decade. The unframed photos crowd each other as they work their way across the walls. Talk about visual overload. It really seems like there must be a million of them, but how many are there really? Neither the artist nor the curator knows the exact number, but they estimate it's around 200. "Call it a million," Byrne says with just a trace of a smile.

When I remark that viewers will inevitably look for autobiographical insights as they scan the assorted images, Byrne acknowledges as much with body language that seems to say, Oh, well, that goes with the territory. So, I look at some of the pictures with him. There's a tightly cropped shot of an advertisement in which a woman is talking on a cellular phone; the words out of touch are written on her forehead. There's a shot of a road sign reading south of here. There's a picture of a swimming pool partly filled with brackish water; a brick grotto containing a statue of the Virgin Mary sits poolside. There are many photos of billboards, highways, parking garages, kitschy landscape paintings. This is vernacular America, the unbeautiful. Each photo could be a Byrne lyric that makes the mundane seem exotic.

We've been walking through all this visual chaos for several minutes, and I finally summon the courage to ask a standard journalistic question: What does all this mean? It's risky to put someone on the spot when that someone never stops moving, but I wait for an answer. Byrne considers it for a bit and then, in what turns out to be characteristic courtesy and thoughtfulness, makes a lot of sense with his response.

"These are photos taken over many years, though most of them are more recent. It's something I do constantly, an ongoing thing. Now I've arranged them as best I could so they don't look completely chaotic. There is some kind of underlying theme, only I wasn't thinking about it at the time. I just took photos. Maybe it's a way of thinking in a language that doesn't use words. In order to take words, I take pictures.

"I want to get technically proficient pictures, but the impulse is just to try and understand the world by taking pictures of parts of it. There was almost no intervention on my part. This is just found stuff. I try not to censor myself. I shoot anything that seems striking to me and later can figure out why I wanted to take it. As far as what it means, some of it's really obvious to me. The chaotic texture has [images of] nature and artificial nature, like this one with paint [splashed] on the ground."

The main impression left by the massed photos is that our landscape has suffered from so much human (and specifically commercial) intervention that it's no longer natural. Furthering that impression, there are no real people in any of these shots, and yet the American character is everywhere on display.

But if "One Million Images" tempts viewers to look for larger meanings, it also teases them for making the attempt. The photos are accompanied by a wall text that seems designed to confuse rather than enlighten. "The text is a riff on museum wall texts," Byrne says.

The juxtaposed visual fragments in this series are analogous to how Byrne's music and artistic personality in general operate. Just think back to True Stories, the 1986 feature film he directed, co-wrote, and narrated (wearing a cowboy hat), with Talking Heads supplying the music. True Stories was set in a fictitious Texas town populated by an oddball assortment of humanity. Byrne based the script on human-interest stories he'd read in tabloid newspapers. Truth and fiction were mingled in a quirky manner, and to the extent that there was a narrative, it was picaresque. The film seemed like a loosely linked series of snapshots.

When these observations are shared with Byrne, he does not disagree. Seeing these many photographed places prompts me to ask about more particular places in his life.

The Scottish-born musician's family moved to Canada when he was a wee lad, then, when he was 7, moved to the southwest Baltimore County community of Arbutus. By the time he graduated from Lansdowne High School in 1970 he was showing musical inclinations, playing in a local rock band.

When I confess that I was a fellow if somewhat younger Arbutian, I think I see an eyebrow raised in interest. We slip into shorthand geographical references, and it emerges that Byrne watched both of his childhood homes in Arbutus be demolished, one for construction of Interstate 95, the other for a public parking lot.

"You get to watch your house pushed into your own basement," he observes. Was that traumatic? "It does give you a feeling that you have to find your security somewhere other than a house in one place."

The teenaged Byrne soon started making tracks out of Arbutus and Baltimore. He lasted as a student at MICA for one year. "I was doing more conceptual stuff than most people at the Institute were doing then," he says when asked why he quit. "I remember doing a series of drawings of the New Jersey Turnpike as a surging line and a text saying what it was. The road was just squiggles. With the atmosphere at the Institute at that time, nobody could figure out how to take it."

He gave art school another go at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Although he did not graduate from there either, he did meet two of the other three members of Talking Heads (fellow RISD students Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz). The band was founded in 1974 and rode the New Wave to New York fame thanks to insistent rhythms, ominous lyrics, and Byrne's unmistakable artistic sense. "It went well. It snowballed and kept going," he says simply.

During the Talking Heads years and his subsequent solo career, Byrne always did other artwork.

"In my music videos and stage presentations, I'd be doing art that way. And I had never stopped taking pictures, but I had kept that part quiet," he says. "I didn't want to have [a gallery exhibit] and have people say I only got it because of being a popular musician. Ten years ago I got up the nerve to start showing some stuff."

Byrne returns to Baltimore periodically to perform (most recently at Bohager's a few weeks back). He has also occasionally returned to MICA to speak with students there, but this is the first time he's had an exhibit at the Institute. Rather than mounting the sort of grand show befitting such a famous returning alum, Byrne says "I wanted that all the work can be transported in a station wagon. I didn't want expensive crates and all that."

Curator Knecht adds, "We talked about avoiding a kind of slickness." They wanted the students to see an artist's creative process rather than just some polished product, she says.

Byrne nods at Knecht's words. "As with music, sometimes the production can be too slick," he notes, "and you're suspicious of the content when it has shiny surfaces."

His MICA show includes two other installations. "Political Flesh" is a series of large-scale digital photographs of Halloween masks representing the faces of well-known politicians. Byrne shot the insides of the masks; consequently, the politicians' faces are misshapen, and their skin has a sickly pinkish hue. "They're still recognizable, but they've become these abstract flesh landscapes and are now only partly recognizable," he says.

The other installation is a three-minute video, "The End of Reason," a busy collage of ever-evolving linear forms, colorful patterning, and scattered words created with PowerPoint business-presentation software and a Byrne-composed score.

This video is a reminder of just how eclectic Byrne is in his artwork. His songs, photographs, videos, and books present observations of so much of the world, albeit often in oblique and fragmentary ways. I can't help wondering whether Byrne, who floats from project to project, has a favorite medium.

"I did a couple movies," he answers. "That was more fun than anything else. You get to command everybody. You get to play God and tell people what to wear, when to fall in love, and when to die."

At that, David Byrne lets loose a laugh.

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