Tucked away into a back corner of the third floor of O’Neill Library is the Boston College art department’s eccentric exhibit 1984: Stop Making Sense, a colorful collection of paintings on paper hung humbly by white tacks on the grey wall. Professor Hartmut Austen and two studio art majors, Sara Chung, MCAS ’20, and Lucas Mockler, MCAS ’18, took inspiration from the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, a recording of the Talking Heads’ performance at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Calif., for the pieces.
The Talking Heads, famous for hits like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House,” are a New York City based band associated with the new wave and pop art movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Portraits of the band members from the concert film are included in the collection in various abstract styles to depict the Talking Heads’ eclectic sound. One such piece shows a blue and green man holding a microphone while staring intensely into the shelves of dull books across from the exhibit. The polychromatic head is contrasted by a bright cherry red background.
Adding a multimedia element to the collection, one piece includes thin red lines over a black-and-white photograph of an androgynous woman. A similar piece uses the upside-down portrait of an older, plump man as the background for a light blue and red misshapen enlargement of the man’s wrinkled bald head.
The first portrait in the line of paintings spanning the greater part of the large wall depicts two white suit-clad torsos without heads standing side by side under a stripe pattern of shades of green, pink, and purple. The white suit and color stripe combination appears again for a side profile painting of a man with long hair against a black background.
This tricolor stripe scheme is borrowed throughout to contribute to other pieces throughout the collection, including for the skin of a man’s tilted-back head with his mouth agape behind a black microphone. Again the print appears in the form of a boxed head man’s vision, which recalls images of rock art contemporary Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover: Greyish light originates from a point on the box to separate into the pink, purple, and green stripes, which are accented by yellow boxes and black overlay.
Some of the paintings are overtly abstract, leaving viewers with more subtle suggestions about the painting’s subject matter. One painting employs blue translucent rectangles, large bright red shapes, thin grid lines, and indecipherable thick flowing yellow, red, and black lines. Another is covered with the green, purple, and pink stripe motif and accented by black rectangles and a white shape that resembles a morphed white star.
Certain paintings include elements of music, an appropriate addition to the already busy collection. A Picasso-esque cubist piece painted in shades of grey and blue is dotted by bouts of adjacent black lines that suggest the black keys of a keyboard, an essential instrument for the upbeat grooves of the Talking Heads. Another uses thin horizontal lines as an overlay, mimicking the neck of a guitar.
The collection also includes symbols specific to the New England area—one painting is a landscape of a sailboat in a blue bay lined by Cape Cod-style abodes and lush foliage. Austen and company still manage to incorporate elements of the nonsensical art pop theme into the otherwise traditional painting: Black shapes accompanied by white shadow copies overlay the scenic bay. The same painting appears throughout the collection with various overlays, as does a painting of a large white ship and Boston’s iconic Fenway Park.
Two variations of the large white ship painting act as complements for each other. One painting is obstructed by harsh black lines that seem to be the outline of some technical equipment, while the other uses a black overlay to create the same outline from the underlying painting. From the vantage point of the third-base side of the 106-year-old baseball stadium, the painter peers into the night game environment at a bright green field and the neon signs erected from the stadium walls. Perhaps the artist is commenting on the contrasting elements of old and new in the New England area: the artificial glow from neon moons lighting up a symbol of New England tradition.
Using flamboyant colors, abstract images, musical motifs, and New England elements, Austen, Chung, and Mockler offer a lively account of director Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and capture the artistic vision of the Talking Heads.
Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff