Leave it to Bryan Baker to kick-start the new year’s art happenings with a serenade. At his First Friday show on Jan. 4, entitled “Notes from the Ukulele Diary,” Baker strolled around 4th and Gill’s Birdhouse gallery with said instrument in tow and played nine terse songs written especially for the event. Dressed in his trademark suit and tie, Baker embodied the spirit of a troubadour from another era, engaging the crowd with eye contact and even taking requests. The tunes were also accompanied by a set of nine screen prints, which featured Baker’s signature geometric patterns as well as the lyrics to his songs.
Baker carefully strummed the melodies and sang his songs to a captive audience. It was a warm environment, the antithesis of the kind of performance art in which viewers scatter to avoid being pulled into something unknown. He played each song in proximity to its printed version, moving around the room and repeating each song several times. Call it art or just good ol’ entertainment—Baker seemed to be testing the effectiveness of communication, and it made for a beguiling performance.
The intent here was for the viewer to read the song lyrics and develop a narrative to contrast with Baker’s own musical renditions of the bittersweet odes to lost love and betrayal: “Well I hope it won’t take much to remind you of me, because I’m getting on my way now and there isn’t anything I can leave/I’ve just figured out what I guess I should’ve already known/He’s still the one and you just have me coming around.” Passages like these read like poetry in print, but take on a more confessional tone when Baker sings them.
The prints themselves, which will be on display at the Birdhouse through January, are something to behold. Baker has been working with bold patterns for several years now, beginning with an argyle-meets-polka-dot poster for New York jazz ensemble The Eastern Seaboard’s show here in town several years ago. His grid-like design on the poster for last year’s Morrissey performance was elegant and even got rave reviews from Moz himself. For the “Ukulele Diary” prints, Baker used similar geometric shapes with an overlapping wood-grain effect.
Baker’s artist’s statement for the show describes the pieces as “sad songs for busy people.” There’s no denying Baker is one of the busiest players in the downtown art scene. He often travels to trade shows, music festivals, and art fairs as part of his design position at local letterpress empire Yee-Haw Industries, where he keeps the presses rolling. He lectures frequently at printmaking conferences and museums, and acts as an unofficial ambassador to Yee-Haw interns and UT printmaking students. He has a long list of gallery shows under his belt and has also curated a video art show at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, the town’s hub for conceptual art.
Last fall, Baker removed all of the furniture in his Fort Sanders apartment for one night to create an impromptu art space and coined it the Worst Gallery. (He’s planning another show there soon.) In December he hand-printed 500 album jackets for a Whisk-Hutzel compilation to celebrate the local record label’s 150th release and was spotted at the Pilot Light peddling them himself to all of his friends.
“Notes from the Ukulele Diary” isn’t the first time he’s played music in town, either. He was one of two bass players for the plucky experimental band Plans Off for a few years and has been known to insert drum sticks into electric fans onstage at the Pilot Light to achieve a desired sound. His first time playing the ukulele live came a few years back during a collaboration with former Pink Sexies’ member Bill De Leonardis, who accompanied Baker on an oud.
Baker eschewed the traditional New Year’s Eve festivities for a long night in the print shop. When asked what his resolutions were for the new year concerning his art, he mentioned revisiting several older projects and contributing to a new local arts review in the works. Let’s hope it involves more ukulele as well.
What: “Notes From the Ukulele Diary”
Where: The Birdhouse (88 N. 4th Ave.)
When: Through January