Since 2002, Devendra Banhart has released eight studio albums in addition to a number of EPs and compilations, but while the Venezuelan-American artist was making his folk-rock music, he was also producing a large body of visual art that for the first time is brought together in book form. I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street, published in June by Prestel Publishing, features a range of Banhart’s drawings, paintings, photographs, and mixed media works from the past decade. Accompanied by an essay by Jeffrey Dietch — who refers to him as “one of the most engaging artists and musicians of his generation” — and by a surreal conversation with fellow musician and longtime friend Adam Green, the catalogue delves deep into the whimsical workings of Banhart’s mind often expressed in his music.
Its title alludes to the noodle store-lined East Village street Banhart previously lived on and sums up the playful and free-spirited nature of the works within. For Banhart, the process of making art is as meaningful as the final product; repetition of form is rife in many of his works as if he were slowly feeling his way towards a satisfying vision with each sketch and stroke. “After ‘Haru Spring’ by Harold Budd” (2014), for example, is simply four panels of ink scrawls representing Banhart’s visual interpretations as he listened to the avant-garde composer’s song over and over again. Earlier works include watercolors wholly composed of careful lines painted with a small brush of just three horsehairs. In “Oh Me Oh My” (2002), an image used as one of his album covers, lines weave through one another to form a dizzying pattern that unravels into words. Banhart worked with these meticulous brushworks for a long time, producing works that at first glance look like lovingly hand-sewn samplers.
This appreciation of the tactile extends to his choice of surfaces, which have a significant influence on the images that eventually covered them. “You end up making work that is going to fit the material,” Banhart said at a recent talk. “I probably would have done a different kind of work if it had been different material.”
The opening pages of old books often served as these canvases, taken from the free section of a bookstore in San Francisco. Usually yellowed and sometimes stained, they are what Banhart referred to as “blank pages warming you up to the content” — a statement that also fittingly describes their function in his creative process.
The compendium also reads like a narrative in that it chronicles his development as a visual artist. From an image of his first artwork as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute to a cryptic poem that changed his approach to writing, to his most recent exploration of photography, the collection is a diverse one; it also emphasizes Banhart’s constant experimentation with what visual art may express for him. Most notably, his “Sphinx Interior” series consists of variations on a pattern within the same outline of a sphinx in a kind of meta-work that “displays” itself. First created during a time when Banhart could not get an art show, the shape became for him a substitute for a gallery: in using the sphinx as architecture, the drawing of motifs within resembled the creation of his own show. As Banhart explained, “Maintaining the shape but always changing the inside is kind of my own way of not needing a gallery.”
This process of figuring things out lies at the heart of his work, both musical and visual. In his conversation with Adam Green, Banhart compares his reckoning with a drawing to “a final verse that I couldn’t find.” It is this discard of control from the outset and total embrace of meditative free-form that makes his art so compelling.
I Left My Noodle on Ramen Street was published in June by Prestel Publishing.