Devendra Banhart's 'Mosquito Drawings'
Devendra Banhart is known for whimsical and stream-of-consciousness
lyrics. But words are not the only thing spilling out from his
creative impulses he's also a prodigious visual artist. He's actually
been drawing longer than he's been writing songs.
Last month, Banhart's first solo gallery show went up on Manhattan's
Upper East Side, just off Madison Avenue, at the Roth Horowitz Gallery.
Not far from where Carrie Bradshaw lived, and pretty far from where you'd expect to see Devendra, there is an exhibit of his recent
drawings on view until mid-December. Billed as a collection of "mosquito
drawings," the little line drawings feature many mosquito-like creatures,
but also images of vines, hands, hands turning into vines, open-mouthed
faces and, if I'm not mistaken, even a puppy's face.
The opening night (November 5) was a cold and soggy one: the kind of
night that keeps most New Yorkers on their sofas eating take-out. But
still, the Roth Horowitz gallery was filled with Banhart fans and
friends. People milled around talking more about how great his new CD, Niño Rojo, is
than about the art on display. Until Banhart showed up; then the praise
started to flow. He walked in with his bearded entourage, all of them
quite the opposite of the group of guys from the HBO series "Entourage." Banhart's gang was au naturel, with long hair and beards rather
than plucked eyebrows and fruity moisturizers.
Was Banhart happy with the opening night? "Yes," he said over the phone
a few weeks later, "except it rained and there was no bar." But, the
rain was also kind of fitting, he said. "I was in tune with nature. When
it rains it releases, and with the opening, all of my stress was released."
All of the work was done while Banhart was staying in Maries de La Mer
in Southern France. He says he spends about three days on each drawing
or painting. Instead of canvases, he often uses the blank insides of old
book covers and other found bits of paper. The drawings, small and quiet
like his music, fit nicely in the one-room gallery. Each was made up of
tiny lines, sometimes uniting to create a shadow effect, sometimes to
make borders and often forming odd creatures with wide-open eyes and
mouths. On a lot of the pages there were dark splotches that looked like
spilled wine, coffee or, perhaps, bong water.
None of the drawings were of a concrete thing; all are open to
interpretation. Even Banhart is at a loss to describe them. "I have no
words for what they are. That's why I draw them," he said. In other
interviews, he's said that he sings what he can't draw and he draws what
he can't sing. In our telephone conversation, he said that the
inspiration or "seed always comes in a different form. It isn't a
vision or aural. You tailor it to whatever fits."
One of the drawings that piqued my curiosity was made of big thick
lines, instead of the tiny little ones, and seemed to be nothing more
than a crude illustration of roots or antlers. When I asked about it, he
said it could be either or the chin of a weird tropical fish.
In the center of the gallery there was a glass case displaying Banhart's
more grown-up side. On stage, in his music and in most of his visual
art, Banhart has a very boyish and innocent quality. He sings about
sparrows and spiders; he draws fish and plants with a childlike hand.
But he has a more defined and grown-up hand, and with it, he makes
illustrations that look like they're from the Kama Sutra or some other
ancient sex guide. Banhart said that one of his biggest influences is
Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-born body artist, whose work included leaving a
"silueta" of herself in the earth, or covering herself with earth (mud
or flowers) and then taking a photograph. Her work offers a tantalizing
combination of innocence and sexuality, and like Banhart, is very much
in tune with nature.
If you live on the East Coast, and have the time or inclination to see
his art, Banhart's drawings are on view until December 18. The Hirshhorn
Museum in Washington D.C. has an exhibit of Ana Mendieta's work until
January 2. Lori Miller Barrett [Tuesday, December 7, 2004]