Seeing David Byrne in a “human” context, let alone an “academic” one, is absolutely surreal, as all in attendance at his Tuesday lecture in the Green Room of the Art School can verify. There stood Byrne in skinny black jeans and a purple silk button-down, his thick white hair sprouting atop his head, catching the soft glow of the projector. He was nearly incomprehensible, but his own acceptance of the absurdity of his speech brought the afternoon a much-needed dose of reality and humility.
Lead singer and songwriter of the New Wave band Talking Heads, Byrne is a paragon of ’80s flash. He fronted a band that brought new excess to music by swirling synthesizers into the gritty, raw punk music of the late ’70s. Talking Heads one-upped most bands of the time by infusing their image with unparalleled visual consciousness. So considering the artistic nature of the Talking Heads’ flamboyance, Byrne’s slip into the art world is understandable.
He attended Rhode Island School of Design before dropping out and starting the Talking Heads in 1974, and since that time, Byrne has kept his creative side a-chugging through work that treads the boundary between art and reality. Last year, at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York, Byrne exhibited a series of sketches and models called “Furnishing the Self — Upholstering the Soul,” featuring such makeshift chairs as a filing cabinet with one drawer ajar and a tree stump. The exhibit was followed by this year’s “Arboretum” at the Maya Stendhal Gallery, a riff on everything from the Talking Heads to trees and self-therapy. As ambitious as the Talking Heads’ music, Byrne’s visual work strives to add to the growing dialogue surrounding the eternal question: What makes art art?
He began his speech by theorizing on peacocks. And though he just used the plumed birds to lead into a discussion of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, he really seemed more interested in the delicate fowl themselves. Except Byrne found it troubling that in many cases, the most beautiful desire a mate of considerably less physical prowess. His case in point: Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. (At this time, I feel I must concede that I’ve always had a soft spot for the (baby)shambled coke-case. Listen to “For Lovers.” It might explain a few things.) And from the favorite couple of the British tabloids, he launched into the point of his entire talk: Artlessness.
So why was Byrne giving this talk? That’s still up for debate. He’s by no means an authority on the subject, and he’s not exactly the most lucid or captivating speaker. His Bauhaus-ian argument, which was something about the need to hold true to the materials used in creating a piece of art, seemed more digression than logical progression. But his acceptance of the shaky bridges piecing his argument together made the speech worthwhile. For Byrne, art should aim to create spectacle out of the ordinary. Yet his attempt to be ordinary — giving a lecture in an art school — seemed the greatest spectacle.