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Monday, November 27, 2006

climbing trees

Since I have David Byrne on my mind so much this week, I decided to start reading his new book Arboretum. I begin my work most days the same way: I inspect (or read) a few pages of an art book or exhibition catalogue and then I closely read a sonnet twice. Doing this serves as a ritual to start the day but it offers much more.

Working my way incrementally through a book of discrete units, either paintings or sonnets, leads to a different appreciation than plowing through the book in a few sittings. The knowledge I gain feels coquettish. It lingers for weeks and months, always promising more and always making me return for another brief glimpse. I don't get to reach closure until I have proven my dedication, and if I falter by not showing up for a few days, it will take that much longer to reach my goal. It also grounds my reading and viewing experience in some deeper place in my mind. The three architectures of the sonnet—Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian—have been slowly burned into me over many hundreds of days.

So today I started David Byrne's book of tree drawings the same way: I read only the preface and will look at no more than three to five drawings a day. It's a book of connections that is already leading to new sets of connections for me as a reader. The drawings take the form of trees apparently showing genealogies of ideas and practices, but closer inspection shows that the associations are fanciful. And yet they are irresistible. The links between Priests, Mullahs, and Rabbis to Literary Critics in drawing 26 are obvious enough, but Record Collectors, Flower Arrangers, and IT Designers? And (WTF?) Fly Fishers? You get the idea.

The drawings indulge an attraction I share to the forms of scientific inquiry and order while overlooking any mandate of investing these forms with the right kind of content, in this case positive scientific knowledge. In the preface he refers to the motivations for the drawings as 'Commands to myself to make mental maps of imaginary territory.' One thinks readily of Basquiat's faux indexes, strange histories, and riotous Roman numbering in paintings like Jawbone of an Ass (1982). (Click on it at the other site for enlargement.)

Why do forms lure us even when deliberately emptied of their historically and culturally appropriate contents? A patent drawing of a hamburger. Architectural plans for a sneeze. Or, like Basquiat, copyright symbols and notary public seals invoking a fanciful, alternative officialdom. Is part of this impulse a bow to the authority of culturally prestigious practices? Why do we enjoy the traffic in symbols and forms even after we have drained them of their traditional meanings?

There is something both seductive and rebellious about draining traditional forms of their assigned content and then using those forms to dress up alternative material, particularly when that material is nonsense. Or when the re-assignment raises questions about the validity of cultural authority in the first place. David Byrne has proceeded by this method before, as in The New Sins, his pseudo-catechism. We will have to see over the next few weeks where his tree drawings take us.


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