You May Ask Yourself


Help David Byrne solve a puzzle. What’s his latest photography installation going to look like?

The artist, muscian and former Talking Heads frontman has placed a computer at the center of the exhibition, where hundreds of his images will be displayed in a portfolio of thumbnails. Viewers will be able to search through what Byrne calls a “Victorian cabinet of wonders on a hard drive” for the one that speaks to them. They can either buy it, in the form of a computer printout, or with the help of a gallery assistant, print a copy to display as part of the exhibition.

In this way, through viewer-by-viewer impulses, “Elective Affinities (A Trade Show Demonstration),” which opened Saturday at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, will grow from “a seemingly random set of images to groupings that focus on a narrower set of things, places and forms,” Byrne explains in an e-mail interview. “Kind of like a puzzle, but one that only reveals its subject as it nears completion.”


But as for what this puzzle will reveal, neither the enigmatic Byrne nor the gallery offers any specifics: “That part is hard for me to say--maybe easier for you to see,” Byrne says. “We don’t really want people to know what to expect,” says Laurie Steelink, who organized the exhibition at Track 16.

Byrne does say he will “try to encourage similarly focused pictures to be grouped together; they resonate off one another more that way and make things a little clearer.” But how exactly he’ll offer this encouragement also remains undisclosed.

Although Byrne, 50, says he was “sucked into” music and art at around the same time, in the late 1960s, his career as an exhibiting photographer has developed post-Talking Heads. His photos were first shown in 1990, at a group exhibition in Tokyo, two years after Talking Heads released their last album of new material. “Elective Affinities” marks his first solo art show in Los Angeles.

Like Byrne’s music, his photographs defy easy categorization. He often processes his photos with techniques such as the color-enhancing Cibachrome or combines them with digital effects. He frequently mixes text with images, usually bringing the same cerebral, ironic tone that has defined much of his songwriting. Many of his images involve everyday settings and objects in incongruous contexts--oddly cropped or positioned. The results are extremely varied: 12 hotel rooms, shown in a tight group, every one competing for world’s ugliest bedspread. (Viewed by themselves, the patterns don’t seem so offensive). A giant pair of scissors hovering in the sky above an iconic-looking farm. Parking lots and cafeterias devoid of human beings. What appear to be Lady Di’s eyes--and a bit of the bridge of her nose.

That’s only a glimpse inside Byrne’s cabinet of wonders.

In “Elective Affinities,” he wants viewers to spend time searching through that cabinet considering what he calls his “visual note-taking.” In this way, he is hoping to foster “thinking in a nonverbal language--a language we are all addressed in, but one that most of us don’t speak.”

Byrne knows an exhibition with viewer participation has risks, but that’s hardly a deterrent to a man who first took to the stage in junior high with a ukulele in hand. “Audience participation can be unpleasant and gimmicky, so it’s a tricky kind of balancing act to pull it off,” he admits. “When it works, everyone feels more involved and incorporated than ever. When it doesn’t, everyone just squirms and feels uncomfortable.”


In this case, Byrne hopes his audience will not only experience firsthand how the accumulation of images on a wall can change the look and meaning of an exhibition, but also learn something about artistic process. What they learn won’t necessarily be positive, he says.

“They’ll see, and possibly be disillusioned by, a machine producing a photo. Not that they haven’t seen digital printers before, but to accept that digital prints might be ‘fine art’ might be a big leap for some. And to have it be so obvious,” he says.

“The public often prefers the myth of the presence of the artist’s hand--the sense that the artist self-labored long and hard and oversaw every step of the production--a leftover from drawing and painting [and] earlier photography,” he says. “I have actually overseen the technical, printing and color adjustments on all of these, but once those decisions are made, it is a truly mechanical reproduction.”

So why involve the viewers in the exhibition’s evolving meaning only to potentially distract them with a disillusioning process? “Why do I want to possibly sabotage my own show? People don’t want to see what’s behind the curtain, do they? But we’ll see,” he responds.

Byrne has long been making and breaking his own rules as he has sought ways to grab our attention and pull us out of our insular worlds. As an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1970s, Byrne used a variety of conceptual art techniques to do just that.

Some of his work, he says, “incorporated photos--evidence of UFOs, portraits of classmates, etc. But most of it was text-based, like questionnaires, lists of commonly accepted--or possibly accepted--truths. Transcriptions of game shows as literature, taped phone conversations over unmoving video images, drawings on Etch-a-Sketch toys, shots of suburban tract homes overlaid with taped phone conversations of me and my friends talking to their parents.”

Art school is also where Byrne formed a band called the Artistics with fellow students Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. With Byrne on lead vocals and guitar, the band turned into Talking Heads and, adding Jerry Harrison to the lineup, made its debut in 1975, supporting the Ramones at CBGB in New York City. The rest is 17 years of well-known new-wave music history.

As a solo artist, Byrne has frequently jumped musical boundaries, especially through his incorporation of sounds and rhythms from around the globe. In 1989, he founded a record label, Luaka Bop, as a way of sharing his enthusiasm for Brazilian music. No matter the medium, Byrne seems dedicated to culling inspiration from the world and compiling the elements in unconventional ways: a Cajun song that features sitars; Luaka Bop’s “Afropea” compilation (a combo of European and African musics); or a picture, in the current exhibition, of a truck with the caption “She’s a beauty, mate!”

“When something makes us feel strange, it often makes us feel good too. The two sensations are somehow linked,” Byrne writes in the end notes of his 1995 photography collection, “Strange Ritual.” “The camera helps this sensation to happen. It becomes a machine for investing these places and things with power, a device for removing things from their mundane context. They become more than what they once were. More special, more valuable, more powerful. They stand for something beyond themselves.”

Steelink cites that power to infuse images with meaning as her reason for suggesting a show of his work to Track 16 owner Tom Patchett.

“I find his process stimulating, and the collecting of images bordering on something other than just ‘art.’ You’re forced to read between the lines. It’s like an experiment in a language you don’t understand,” she says.

As the puzzle begins to come together, it can speak in no shortage of ways.

“When you step back from it,” Steelink says, it should “reveal a dialogue and pictorial history of human nature, in all its odd, glorious color, with the grotesque and the beautiful side by side.”


“ELECTIVE AFFINITIES,” Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Dates: Through Oct.19. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Price: Free. Also: Byrne will be giving a slide lecture today, 7 p.m., titled “Evil Art and Good Advertising,” $5, (310) 264-4678 for reservations.


Rachel Uslan is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.