PHILADELPHIA — “Is Mr. Lynch as compelling a fine artist as he has been a filmmaker?” That’s the challenge Ken Johnson throws down in his New York Times review of David Lynch: The Unified Field at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. And without missing a beat, “The short answer is no.”
But it’s the wrong question. Rather, it is more fitting to speculate on whether these repugnantly sardonic objects would ever see the light of day if David Lynch weren’t one of the few truly visionary directors of our time. The short answer is maybe, probably, who knows?
Lynch’s mature drawings and paintings (many of which are a hybrid species of painted bas-relief) come out of the art brut tradition established by Jean Dubuffet in the postwar years — tough, tactile surfaces mining subconscious sources. In their formal restlessness and obsessive fantasies both whimsical and grotesque, they are of a piece with the work of American mavericks such as Nancy Grossman, Jess, H.C. Westermann, Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin.
Despite their abrasiveness and resistance to pigeonholing, all of these artists found a niche in an otherwise indifferent mainstream art world, and so it is not unreasonable to speculate that if Lynch had never dropped out the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was studying painting, to make Eraserhead (completed in 1977 after years of stops and starts), he would be as well-known as they are.
But that, again, is a mistaken premise. Lynch is who he is, a painter who makes films and a filmmaker who paints. His life’s work, as the subtitle of his retrospective unequivocally states, is a unified field. Again from Johnson’s Times review:
Images of sex, violence, trauma and black comedy abound, but many of the qualities that make his movies so singular — so “Lynchian” — are missing. The convoluted narratives, shifts from noirish realism to hallucinatory surrealism, erotic sensuality and creepy voyeurism, atmospheres of suspense and dread, mood swings from wonder to hysteria to bottomless grief, battles between innocence and evil: these dimensions aren’t fully realized in Mr. Lynch’s paintings.
But what painting, we may ask, with the possible exception of Caravaggio’s crazed “The Seven Acts of Mercy” (ca. 1607), can do that? Johnson’s criteria are based on psychological responses to film’s unique ability to manipulate time. Lynch’s paintings, like all paintings, are atemporal, and the words the artist often scrawls on their surfaces are dumbly descriptive in an anti-narrative sort of way.
Lynch’s visual art may not match the intensity level of his films, but in some ways it cuts closer to the bone. The simple fact that Lynch makes these objects by hand demands that he own their misanthropy and violence: the brutality of “Bob Loves Sally Until She is Blue in the Face” (2000), a bedroom scene as coldly anti-erotic as anything in Eraserhead, or “Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House” (2009), with its pistol-and-knife-brandishing lunatic striding toward the figure of a tiny, helpless woman, can’t be ascribed to the impulses of a fictional character or the necessities of a movie plot. They’re there because he channeled them there.
Consequently, Lynch’s paintings — especially the plethora he completed after Inland Empire (2006), his most recent feature film — feel like chunks of crystalized consciousness that have cracked off his monumental id and fallen to the studio floor, where he picked them up and glued them to ratty sheets of cardboard. (His frequent use of cheap, distressed materials underscores the impression that he is constantly cycling through ideas, both painterly and filmic, with nothing considered particularly precious.)
The interrelationships among both classes of ideas are quickly discernible, as if one were a halation effect of the other. The character of Killer BOB, the unforgettable personification of evil from Lynch’s landmark television series, Twin Peaks (1990-1991), is evoked in the above-mentioned “Bob Loves Sally” as well as in “Mister Redman” (2000), which features the inscription, “Because of wayward activity based upon unproductive thinking BOB meets mister REDMAN” and accordingly depicts a diminutive, turtle-like Bob cowering beneath a much larger figure made out of blobs, squeezes and trails of red paint. A sheet of fabric that could be a window drape or a stage curtain covers the top right corner of both paintings, recalling the red-draped room in Special Agent Dale Cooper’s dream sequence from the same series.
Bob (whose name is spelled in caps on the surfaces of both paintings) may or may not be BOB, and we certainly don’t know who Mr. Redman is (nor Sally for that matter, though a Google search reveals that her name appears in the title song from Crazy Clown Time, the experimental pop album Lynch recorded in 2011). But the sense we get from such recurrences is of an ever-unfolding semi-private mythology (semi-private because Lynch leaves many of his access doors unlocked, even if they’re trapdoors) that will continue to evolve into tangible form in whatever medium fits it best.
Granted, not every piece in this show, which was reviewed for Hyperallergic by Allison Meier, is a success. Some all but disappear into a generalized murk, though I wouldn’t go as far as Johnson, who dismissed outright the handful of works dating between 1980 and 2006 (“an untold number of indifferent artists produced works indistinguishable from these”). At the very least, each bears Lynch’s stamp.
A painting like “My Head is Disconnected” (ca. 1994-96), a black-and-white tempera on wood featuring a black, rectangular, disembodied head floating above its body, isn’t as powerful as the later, thoroughly dyspeptic “Boy Lights Fire” (2010), in which a rodent-headed boy, anatomically correct (aside from his ludicrously extended arms) and dressed in a real shirt and soiled white jockey shorts, strikes a hugely oversized match from a hugely oversized matchbook (with glowing electric light bulbs standing in for sparks), but it still provides a solid, graphic punch.
Ken Johnson’s critique, however, raises interesting questions about the efficacy and social function of visual art — what we can and cannot expect it to do in its current manifestations. To backtrack a bit on my earlier contention, is Johnson wrong to hope for “convoluted narratives, shifts from noirish realism to hallucinatory surrealism,” etc., in Lynch’s paintings?
In an ideal world — or perhaps, more to the point, in a society bound by a cohesive set of beliefs — the answer would be no. To return for a moment to Caravaggio: when we visit the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to see his “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” (1599-1600), easily one of the greatest narrative paintings of all time, we perceive little beyond a freeze-frame of shock and horror.
But to the faithful of the time (which may or may not have included Caravaggio), the details of the backstory were implicitly understood and firmly believed: Matthew, the sinner and tax collector who was personally sought out by Jesus to be his disciple, and who later became the author of one of the four gospels, is seen at the moment he is murdered during the celebration of Mass — the ultimate sacrilege — on the orders of a depraved despot.
Believing what they did, those gazing upon the painting at the dawn of the 17th century could very well have experienced Caravaggio’s image as a portal into a realm of “convoluted narratives, shifts from noirish realism to hallucinatory surrealism, erotic sensuality and creepy voyeurism, atmospheres of suspense and dread, mood swings from wonder to hysteria to bottomless grief, battles between innocence and evil.” That we are no longer culture-wide participants in the power of painting is a price we pay for the privilege of living in the modern world.
But film, in its unspooling of narrative — even one as hallucinatory as Eraserhead or Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001) — creates its own belief structure: the more convincing the realization, the more visceral the impact. Lynch’s most effective movies possess a preternatural ability to sweep past our defenses and explode the fears that religion was designed to quell, or at least mask — namely, the horrifying prolificacy of life, the randomness of death, and the ultimate unknowability of others, let alone ourselves.
The artworks in this exhibition are like pieces of shrapnel from that assault: broken bits of a more devastating weapon, but no less nasty in what they shower from the skies.
David Lynch: The Unified Field continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (118 N Broad Street, Philadelphia) through January 11, 2015.