Devendra Banhart Exchanges Breath and Rhythm for Pencil and Ink

LOS ANGELES — The Grief I Have Caused You, currently on display at Nicodim Gallery, is artist and musician Devendra Banhart’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. “The ‘you’ in the title is you,” Banhart clarified in an email to Hyperallergic. The show’s press release alludes to the shared experience of the pandemic, along with a constellation of references akin to an Allen Ginsberg poem. “I recently realized that when I first started making art it was all about ‘being me’ as much as possible,” Banhart wrote. “Over time, I’ve realized that it’s really about being less and less and less ‘me.’”

Installation view of Devendra Banhart: The Grief I Have Caused You at Nicodim Gallery

This theme takes the form of the body’s undoing, a literal unraveling of selfhood. The exhibition is rooted in the artist’s study of Chöd Buddhism and the practice of offering up one’s entire body. The painting “The Kiss”(2021) implies a fragmented affinity with the self, a fleshy, double-orificed face folded inwards. Banhart plays with repulsion, figures turning themselves inside out until the body is defamiliarized. “I would paint something repulsive till it started to crack me up,” Banhart wrote. Many figures retain this mix of the grotesque and funny — impish, puckering faces that look on the verge of either vomiting or laughing.

Devendra Banhart, “The Kiss” (2021), oil on canvas, 25 x 20 inches

In a mash-up of European modernist styles, Banharts’s works also feature landmarks such as the Brahmaputra River and Jongsong Peak. The Venezuelan-American artist has never been shy about incorporating other cultures into his work. However, the dogged East-West dichotomy in the show echoes the trope of Western artists mining Eastern philosophy for aesthetic fodder. Declarations of universal suffering from a white male celebrity can come across as condescending in a city like Los Angeles where the pandemic’s impact is decidedly stratified.

Devendra Banhart, “Barbarous Nomenclature” (2020), oil on canvas, 33.50 x 25 inches

The high symbolism and complex imagery of Banhart’s lyrics also find their way into his paintings. “Barbarous Nomenclature” (2020) is a tangle of strange signifiers — a crumpled ice cream cone, a toothy deity, a pair of cherries grazing a dick — tying together the divine, the erotic, and the monstrous. Any fan of his music will recognize the minimalist drawings from his album covers. An admirer of Cy Twombly, Banhart speaks to his own sparse use of line: “I will go through 50 to 100 drawings to get to the right line, the one that emits … the one you can hear.” It’s as though he is exchanging breath and rhythm for pencil and ink. While Banhart falters in his assumed ability to speak to any “you,” his drawings, which are kind of shaky and sparse, succeed in being intimate and vulnerable without making grandiose claims about universal suffering.

Devendra Banhart: The Grief I Have Caused You continues at Nicodim Gallery (1700 S Santa Fe Ave #160, Downtown, Los Angeles) through March 20.

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