By Andrew J. Ligon III
Flipping through David Byrne’s just-published book of photographs and text, “Strange Ritual,” one can’t help agreeing with his statement that “the sublime is in the banal.”
Byrne will exhibit 60 prints from the book Thursday at the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art and also will attend the opening for book autographs.
“Strange Ritual” is a collection of photographs that document the “crazy beauty” he stumbles across in Japanese vending machines, Indian film posters, anonymous hotel bathrooms, Mexican shop-window displays and religious relics from Istanbul, to name just a few.
Byrne is not stranger to El Paso, having been here a couple of years ago looking for the sublime in the banal and actually finding it.
“I was here hanging around with James Drake, and a couple of pictures I took are going to be in the show,” he said in a recent interview from his office at Todo Mundo, an art and music publishing company he founded in New York City.
“I took pictures of the warning signs spray-painted on the sides of the canvas that said stuff about ‘not getting stuck in box-cars,’ ‘be careful crossing the river and the highway.’ With the help of James and some weavers he works with, I had the pictures blown up and woven into rugs down in Oaxaca.”
“It’s kind of a weird irony of people in Mexico weaving rugs of images with warnings about crossing the Rio Grande,” he said.
Byrne’s eye for converting the ordinary into the extraordinary is influenced by the work of photographers Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston.
“Their framing is not the classically composed style, so when you see that kind of composition, it produces a pleasant dislocation or confusion that can sometimes allow the viewer to get in to the photograph in a different kind of way,” he said.
Byrne can make a series of standard fluorescent fixtures, an empty parking garage or a Japanese coffee-vending machine seem like surreal meditations on the human condition.
“Taking those pictures of light fixtures is a kind of meditation on glowing heavenly objects. When you photograph them they become less real in a way that is like staring into the void or the sun and they become this bizarre modern way of emptying out your mind,” he explained.
Byrne said “Strange Rituals” was happenstance.
“It wasn’t like I went into this with a road map, that I was heading for a certain point. It was more like I wandered around a bit and found the scenery more interesting in one particular direction. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that I had actually arrived somewhere, which was where I was headed all along.”
Better known for leading the popular Talking Heads rock group, Byrne’s artistic leanings began as a teenager. He later developed his zeal for photographic images with Polaroids at the Maryland College of Art and at the Rhode Island School of Design.