Devendra Banhart continues to write music, he has even released an album in 2019, ‘Ma,’ but I must admit that I am much more familiar with his earlier work such as ‘Rejoicing in the Hands’ and ‘Nino Rojo’… play me one more time ‘At the Hop’! His style was totally fresh and idiosyncratic, soon canned as freak-folk or trippy-hippie. Born to a Venezuelan mother and an American father, there is an undeniable exotism in his art, while he has cited Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Axl Rose, and Caetano Veloso as some of his main influences.
But Devendra has never been a one-dimensional artist, he is also an accomplished visual artist. This is not really a surprise as there is a long tradition of musicians painting and drawing, but there is also a sort of stigma attached to that, we don’t like people wanting to do it all. Devendra actually drew before being a musician: he attended the San Francisco Art Institute in 1998, he has designed the covers of many of his albums and he has behind him a long series of exhibits in galleries all over the world.
Devendra Banhart is currently showing a collection of his recent paintings and drawings, ‘The Grief I Have Caused You,’ at Nicodim Gallery, downtown LA, his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. Without being an art expert, some of it made me think about a bastard version of Paul Klee and Picasso, and the press release precisely mentions the ‘cubist and surrealist tendencies of Paul Klee’ among his direct inspirations, as well as the ‘expressionistic poetry of Helen Frankenthaler, and the violent gestures of Ethel Schwabacher.’
The work is very unstructured and reconstructed, showing recurrent themes of women wearing high heels (often red), monster-like faces, grotesque silhouettes with phalluses… and the titles are hilarious, although barely bringing some light on the meaning of the work: ‘Twilight Hiker,’ ‘Barbarous Nomenclature,’ ‘Where the Brahmaputra River Descends,’ ‘Her Awe is Intricate, Her Joy Infinite,’ ‘Disco Bardo,’ ‘She Sang This, Then Vanished,’ ‘Chod Offering at Muktinath,’ ‘Trying to Show You the Full Moon in My Heart’…
Here is what the press release says to describe the work: ‘Devendra Banhart’s barbarous, nonlinear nomenclature is savage in its nonaggression, and completely at peace with its perverse audacity. The recursive abstracted forms within his canvases are a non-hierarchical alphabet of allegories for the diminishment and destruction of ego. Each mouth, prick, eye, and ass breaks apart and reconstructs itself until they become a collective commune of equally all-important, yet weightless pieces of the tantric universe. They are a cycle of mala beads through the fingers of time.’
Of course, there is also the title of the exhibit, ‘The Grief I Have Caused You,’ that alludes to pain and despair, and a quote from German theologian, philosopher, and mystic Meister Eckhart: ‘Nothing is more gall-bitter than suffering, nothing more honey-sweet than having suffered.’
We can also add that these paintings were ‘sowed in a moment of near-universal hurt’ – I assume the pandemic – and, to go into a more detailed description, each one ‘manifests an equal, harmonic measure of joy: grotesque figurations of comedy and tragedy embrace and approach fellatio in ‘Nyima & Dawa;’ a fat-bottomed, high-heeled hiker rejoices at a finally flat stretch of terrain while a behemoth of a feline looms menacingly overhead in ‘Twilight Hiker;’ ‘Offering’ is a total deconstruction of the elements represented within the first two, a Buddhist garden partially digested by the biome of infinity.’ Three paintings have ‘offering’ in their titles ‘Chod Offering at Muktinath,’ ‘Chod Offering at Asura Cave,’ and ‘Chod Offering at Jongsong Peak’ and they all looked like monstrous assemblages of body parts with some mysterious mystic thing going on, probably borrowing from exotic (Tibetan, Nepali, Bhutanese, Buddhist, Japanese) imagery.
I guess only the artist has the complete key of their profound meaning, but Devendra does not separate them from his musical world: ‘They’ve only been parallel disciplines that meet when it comes time to make, say, an album cover,’ he said during an interview. ‘Just like making a record, my paintings and drawings—half of them are characters, half of it is made up and just trying to be self-referential while not exactly being me. Some of it has nothing to do with me or baring my soul, and some of it is extremely intimate. Most of the paintings are just me trying to crack myself up. I’m so horrified and depressed. I have to paint disco bears over the ocean just to cheer myself up.’
Devendra Banhart paints the same way that he writes music, it’s deeply personal, and it is also universal once you enter his world. One of the most striking paintings of the exhibit is this blue monster face called ‘Barbarous Nomenclature.’ Banhart said he worked on it ‘until that initial wave of disgust and repulsion turns into something relatively comical.’ I guess you can see the comic right away while scratching your head at this curious and grotesque aggregation working like a portrait.
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