The man whose lyrics formed the philosophical backbone of my grad school experience, who was lead singer and muse for the '80s rock band Talking Heads, who has recorded myriad solo albums, written books, created a stream of videos, presented photography exhibitions, composed the music for a Twyla Tharp dance, shared an Oscar for the score of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, is - right now - trying to unscrew a lightbulb.
David Byrne is midway up a ladder at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He's putting the finishing touches on an exhibit featuring his photography and a new visual-and-audio installation. Watching him finesse the lighting and push-pin his art to the wall feels like watching Beethoven pencil in bow marks on a score.
The 49-year-old artist is renowned for acute observations, perfectionism and occasional prickly behavior. Does one ask about his music? His writing? His production company? His visual art? His wife and child? How many times has he answered similar questions? It doesn't help to know that in his most recent book, The New Sins, he relegates "journalists & spell-checkers" to the eighth circle of hell.
But he's nice, and he has a little-boy haircut with errant bangs, wide brown eyes and spanking' white bowling shoes.
Byrne spent last spring on tour promoting his latest album, Looking into the Eyeball, which fuses soul, Latin sounds and strings into music that has, as he puts it, "beats for the body."
This fall, he has been on tour promoting his book, in which he raises philosophical questions about good and evil by describing the "new sins." Charity? A sin. Honesty, ambition and beauty? Sin, sin, sin. A sense of humor is no good, either.
This week, he has been installing his show, talking to art students and re-acquainting himself with Baltimore. The artist already is familiar with the city: He grew up in Arbutus and, before forming the Talking Heads with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, whom he met at the Rhode Island School of Design, spent a year at MICA.
Byrne hops to the floor, skipping the last two rungs of the ladder. "Anyone know where the Dime Museum is?" He has already been to the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting, which houses a 60,000-piece collection of lightbulbs, and he's intrigued by the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, to which he also requests directions.
"Two miles east on North Avenue? " he asks. He looks pleased with the answer. "I can ride my bike."
Indices: Recent and Ongoing Work by David Byrne, a three-part exhibit, is on view through Dec. 16, with Rachel Knecht as curator, who teaches literature at MICA.
Political Flesh features the oversized images of international heads of state such as former President Clinton and Saddam Hussein. To create them, Byrne photographed the insides of Halloween masks, then enlarged and transferred them to canvas. They look like giant, blubbery landscapes.
The End of Reason is a visual-and-audio installation created with the PowerPoint software program. "It is used by sales people for presentations, and it has iconography built into it, but I've subverted it," Byrne says.
In One Million Images, the core of the show, hundreds of unframed and unmounted digital photographs line the gallery walls. Viewed individually, these pictures are offbeat and mundane. There is a telephone pole with a poster touting "Nite Crawlers," a doll with a cracked face, a wall covered with faded and torn porno shots, a hole in the ground, a curved country road marked by a sign: "Repent."
Together, they form a vast sea of peculiarity; the more you look, the more you see, the more bizarre the images begin to seem.
"It is a visual diary of ideas, but it becomes something different when it is installed according to different locations," says Knecht. "He uses the camera to kind of zap an idea."
While faces are included in the installation, there are no true portraits. "I feel that people don't reveal themselves much in portraits, but they do in their things. I look at what they've made or how they dress or what they own and I can tell much more," Byrne says.
I can't help myself: I look down at the artist's bowling shoes.
"I am aware that my things reveal some things about me," he says. "I don't lose sleep over it."