David Lynch, “Boy Lights Fire” (2010), mixed media on cardboard, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHILADELPHIA — Before summoning unsettling images of horror out of the American everyday on film, David Lynch was a visual art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. From 1965 until he relocated to Los Angeles in 1970, he was both shocked and enamored by the grit and decay of the city, which was then at an economic low point. David Lynch: The Unified Field opened earlier this month at his alma mater to explore how, although his career has reached prominence on the screen, his roots are in drawing and painting, and how that medium has continued to grow with dark branches through his career.

With around 90 pieces, the first US retrospective for Lynch stretches from 1965 to the present, not touching much on the film and television work that accounts for sparse spaces of the timeline. Instead the work arranged in the colorful Victorian Gothic galleries of PAFA asserts the standalone strength of Lynch as a visual artist. And if you come because you want some creeping terror to nestle in your skull, perhaps drawn in by the the trailer for the show, with Lynch himself offering an eerie rhythm of distorted talking while flicking ping-pong balls into the darkness, you’ll be in luck.

Installation view of “David Lynch: The Unified Field”

In one of the label texts, Lynch describes Philadelphia as having “a great mood — factories, smoke, railroads, diners, the strangest characters and the darkest nights. The people had stories etched in their faces, and I saw vivid images — plastic curtains held together with Band-Aids, rags stuffed in broken windows.”

He spent some of his Philadelphia time living across from a morgue where he watched the body bags get cleaned, and later his house, where he lived with his wife and child, was broken into while they slept. He also found a community to respond to, as the museum’s coinciding Something Click in Philadelphia exhibition demonstrates, as well as the shuddering work of Francis Bacon. The abandoned buildings, the threat of crime, the rusty palette of dirt and rot — it both captivated and repelled, and was a tone that would find its way into his first feature, Eraserhead (1977), and beyond. Earlier this year he had an exhibition of just photographs of abandoned factories at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, another seemingly random note in a career that’s sidelined to coffee and transcendental meditation advocacy, but is still sourced back to this stage of art experimentation in a moldering city.

Lynch is at his best when grasping just how unsavory we can find deterioration disrupting the mundane areas of our life, especially when evoking it as a reflection of human good and evil — like discovering a severed ear in a field, as in Blue Velvet (1986), or Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped corpse on the shore in Twin Peaks (1990) — and that holds true in his visual art. Insects are mixed into the paint for “A Figure Witnessing the Orchestration of Time” (1990); “Rock with Seven Eyes” (1996) has pupils gazing out from a black blob. A newer work called “Mister Redman” (2000) has a character with dice in his belly tormenting another named Bob, while a chicken foot at the bottom of the huge collage is decried as the “twisted facilitator.” The most memorable work, however, ends up being his first film experiment. Called “Six Men Getting Sick” and made by a 21-year-old Lynch, a minute-long stop motion of paintings is projected over a screen where plaster casts of his own head join the retching chorus to the sound of a siren. You’re reminded that while there’s a definite vision and storytelling with the mix of text and image in the galleries, Lynch is still at his strongest in the medium he mostly left the canvas for.

“Mister Redman” (2000), oil & mixed media on canvas

Detail of “Mister Redman” (2000), oil & mixed media on canvas

Installation view of “David Lynch: The Unified Field”

Today’s Philadelphia is not the one Lynch brooded on, but it still has some of that dichotomy. PAFA, with its beautiful halls, is just walking distance from the Mütter Museum, with its medical specimens twisted in jars of formaldehyde; the abandoned Divine Lorraine Hotel stands tall with its broken windows down the street. The Unified Field as an exhibition is most intriguing as a response to this city, and how the power of a place can resonate no matter your distance from it.

Exterior of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Installation view of “David Lynch: The Unified Field”

Installation view of “David Lynch: The Unified Field”

David Lynch, “Rock with Seven Eyes” (1996) (detail), oil & mixed media on canvas

David Lynch: The Unified Field continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts  (118 N Broad Street, Philadelphia) through January 11, 2015.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...