Interview: Devendra Banhart Chats About His Current LA Exhibit, and Possibly Being Obsessed w/ the Loch Ness Monster

All images courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery

Devendra Banhart has been floating around in our cultural consciousness for quite some time now. Hard to believe, but his two first albums The Charles C. Leary and Oh Me Oh My came out 19 years ago, in 2002. A pioneer of freak folk, Banhart’s music has always exhibited a unique blend of the heart-wrenching and danceable, with poetic free-falls and happy-go-lucky melodies. As one does, he’s evolved over time, introducing new interpretations of his sound and himself. And nearly as long as he’s been making music (we last spoke to him after the release – via Nonesuch – of his mother-focused 2019 album Ma), he’s been painting. This year, in all its isolation, presented the perfect opportunity to focus on the latter.

Banhart’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, The Grief I Have Caused You, now hangs at the Nicodim Gallery in DTLA through March 20. 

The show, a startling Cubist-meets-Surrealist amalgamation of works, features Banhart’s signature eclecticism, natural wit, and ambitious talent. We visited the gallery – ah, how we have missed in-person events – and had the chance to catch up with the artist himself, who took some time out to talk to us about NFTs, his love of staying home, and a possible obsession with the Loch Ness Monster. 

How long have you been painting? 

For 21 years. Still no idea what I’m doing though!

What prompted you to step away from music and work on this collection of paintings this year? 

Studio time, time away from long tours, trying to let go a bit and find a way to dance, to get outta town somehow, a way to disco over the ocean of despair, uncertainty, and sadness. I didn’t think there would be an art show. I genuinely gave up on that possibility…and that’s when Nicodim called. 

 How long did you spend creating this collection?

 About 10 months. 

In your mind, what is the connective tissue of this showing? What are some of the themes or visual symbolisms that put them under the umbrella of The Grief I’ve Caused You?

Offering… Like an offering up of myself, and trying to get away from myself, and trying to get over myself. Trying to love and accept how much I want to get away from myself in a way as well. Painting something repulsive to the point of cracking myself up. Or when the piece is looking back at you with some kind of mischievousness, that’s a good a thing.

There are notably a lot of penises in these works. Aside from the obvious phallic symbolism, why did this image feel important in this collection? 

I do paint a lot of penises, don’t I? It’s possible I’m just obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s also a quite large collection, I think I counted 78 pieces altogether? What was the curation process like for you? 

Quantity over quality that’s for sure! In fact, this was a culling, about 25 pieces didn’t make the final cut. Thank you Ben Lee Handler, curator extraordinaire, for help with that…with everything really.

The Grief I Have Caused You is a rather poignant title. How did you arrive at it?

It was so melodramatic that it just cracked me up – and scared me at the same time.

One of the works was sold as an NFT (non-fungible token). What led you to pursue NFT as an art form and as a way of disseminating your art?  

When an album is completed, I paint what the album looks like for the cover/sleeve. This was the opposite experience – composing what the painting sounded like…very fun!

In what ways has technology opened you up as an artist? And in what ways do you find the digital world limiting or oppressive? 

It really seems to come down to our approach, to our frame of mind, to our intention. That’s where we either limit or liberate. Tech is a tool, neither good nor bad. It’s possible the cards are stacked one way or another. But it’s really how you use the tool.

In your last interview with BlackBook, you said “I just want my friends and my family members to know that I love them. But I really don’t want to hang out with them.” Haha, prescient! Do you still feel that way after 2020? 

Hahahaha, YES.

What’s changed for you after experiencing this pandemic? 

Well, it’s still unfolding, but I certainly never appreciated how powerful it is to sit together and listen to music being performed, to sit together and share a meal, to collectively mourn. I took all of that for granted, even shunned it in a way. 

What do you miss most about your pre-pandemic life? 

I used to love to stay home while I could feel everyone “out there” in the city just having fun. I loved that feeling.

What is the first thing you want do when the world opens back up again? 

There’s a bar I used to meet my best bud Mel at once a week. I would like to take a seat, order a drink, pretend like nothing’s happening for a few minutes, and then just break down crying. I wonder if maybe a chain reaction will have been set off by us or other people at the bar, and we all start crying and hugging each other… like in Stand By Me with the pie eating contest – or was it hot dogs? – where everyone’s throwing up all over each other by the end. Maybe it will be like that, with hugs or with puke…or both!

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