The Hopeful Drawings of David Byrne

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The lesson integrated in Pace Gallery How I learned non-rational logic, an art exhibition by David Byrne, is spelled out in a wall-sized artist statement at its entrance. For visitors who can still catch this breezy, trippy spectacle before it ends its six-week run this Saturday, understanding the meaning of the title from the works themselves can be more rewarding than relying on the autobiographical explanation. Byrne’s word associations, surreal cartoons and thought patterns, also collected in A history of the world (in dingbats) Drawings and writings David Byrne (Phaidon Press 2022) – a nod to artistic creation in the form of spirited brainstorming and insightful diversions.

That mental detours serve as a unifying theme for this show will come as no surprise to any visitor with a passing knowledge of Byrne’s multimedia career. Like Pace’s drawings and writings, Byrne’s output involved creative sleight of hand that only appears effortless due to decades of shrewd refinement. From his days as a two-time art college dropout, he became frontman and chief songwriter of the punk-era juggernaut, the Talking Heads, to his current turn on Broadway, deconstructing the pop concert in post-millennium musical theater through the choreography of gymnastics stripped of American utopia, Byrne exploits the local conventions of our country. Its subject matter ranges from advertising bromides to self-help speeches to religious fundamentalist exhortations, their tongues cropped into funkier, more biased grooves and configurations that – like these impulsive drawings and pictographs – make the America’s delusional optimism.

Portrait of David Byrne (© Jody Rogac)

Byrne’s public reputation for offering counterintuitive hope provides another subtext in How I learned non-rational logic. Though he enjoys the comfortable perch of a celebrity in gentrified New York, the artist has spoken out publicly, with insight and determination, against the city’s continued entrenchment in Midas gold. In response, other less famous and well-connected artists — including some in this post — accused him of ignoring the creative communities and cultural initiatives that thrive beyond Gotham’s golden zip codes. But living in the glass house of an elite Manhattan gallery, as Byrne does, doesn’t mean you can’t throw rhetorical stones at the chilling commodification of nearly every facet of American everyday life, to provided that these objections are aimed at the right agents.

This does not mean that this exhibition is political. This is not the case. But there’s more than a nod to the inherent contradiction of showing unassuming drawings and writings – most done spontaneously by Byrne with a mere pen or pencil on archival paper – in a gallery of elite art with global outposts. Situated directly opposite the ostentatious Chelsea skyline visible through the 7th floor skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows of the gallery, Byrne’s small-scale and spare designs – many dating from the period of grueling city lockdown in 2020 – may remind us (and perhaps remind the artist too) that art can be created wherever you find yourself buried, and using whatever tools you have in that bunker.

So, is Byrne’s art any good? Stylistically, the best drawings and most interesting verbal pictograms lie somewhere between the interrogative visual adventures of Saul Steinberg’s virtuoso drawings and the sometimes overhyped calisthenics of Keith Haring’s charming silhouettes. While the exhibition brings to light the most rudimentary level of Byrne’s visual repertoire, it is akin to observing, in any town or small town, a daydreaming bus passenger with a pen in hand, drawing or scribbling enthusiastically in a moleskin notebook. Thus, the “unrational logic” that Byrne alludes to is the fertile recklessness that goes into creating everyday art.

David Byrne, “Who’s a Pretty Boy Then” (2021), colorfast ink on archival paper, paper signed, titled and dated recto in pencil, 9 x 12 inches (© David Byrne, courtesy Pace Gallery)

Thus Byrne shows that the pen has reasons that reason can never know. A still life doodle of a woolen winter cap can transmogrify hairy human limbs and look like you’re ready for a winter walk. A self-confident pigeon staring into his closet mirror may see his neurotic human double staring at him with reciprocal envy or admiration for what they both almost are or are not. Visual puzzles like these are played out through the ever disarming humor of the drawings. What causes Byrne’s Mr. Potato Head agony as he grimaces and rears back on skinny avian legs? Is the giant finger reaching for a pill-sized smart phone that of a postmodern Gulliver, texted by Lilliputians who miss his company?

Some of the works that include writing—particularly the wall-sized mural that dominates the exhibition space—depict Byrne scattering and then rearranging cultural code words and family or social labels. A drawing shows that a cocktail bar’s taxonomies can be as intellectually productive as a chemist’s periodic table. Other word associations are placed in the roots and branches of trees to reveal how pre-established categories can, without much conscious thought, overtake or uproot old hierarchies; yet other pictorial lists show how the subconscious mind classifies and distorts markers of human progress or worldly success.

David Byrne, “Human Content” (2002), pencil on paper, 16-7/8 x 14 inches, paper; 19 x 16 x 1-1/2 inches, frame (© David Byrne, courtesy Pace Gallery)

stop making sense, Byrne sings in the Talking Heads underground dance hit “Girlfriend Is Better” (1982). And in the American decades that have passed since Byrne plied his trade as a musician in the squalid clubs of New York’s Lower East Side – in an economy far more egalitarian than ours and in a city that then had an artistic ecosystem undeniably more diverse and deinstitutionalized – the willfully ignorant among us have increasingly seized power by denying empirical facts while claiming to be the most enlightened, increasingly flipping rationality on its aching head.

This levity is therefore a tonic for our time even as the exhibition poses a serious question: can the simplest gestures of art and writing revive optimism amid the dangerous absurdities and simplifications that pass for cultural and intellectual exchanges these days? In the liner notes of his album American utopia (2018) Byrne, in Trump’s pre-pandemic era, is about to praise this American tradition of hope, before returning to the premise that “to be descriptive is to be normative” . If you unpack that sentiment further in light of these drawings and writings, it’s less of a naïve platitude than it seems. And it makes me wonder what else art is for, but to remind us that what we call “being reasonable” is too often our timely alibi for not using our imagination.

David Byrne: How I Discovered Irrational Logic continues at Pace Gallery (540 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 19. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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