While exploring the New York Academy of Art‘s 5th Annual Summer Exhibition at Flowers, all I could think about was one person: director David Lynch. Not only because I am a fan of the master of the surreal psychological horror, but many of the works in the exhibition featured a similar eerie atmosphere that pervades Lynch’s films, like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Driveand it wasn’t just the disproportionate amount of works with rabbits.

Author David Foster Wallace in an article about Lynch’s Lost Highway once attempted to describe what is Lynchian:

An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively – i.e., we know it when we see it.

I knew the Lynchian in NYAA’s Summer Exhibition when I saw it.

Selected by a jury made up of gallerist Matthew Flowers, curator Carter E. Foster of the Whitney and art historian Julie Heffernan, NYAA’s Summer Exhibition contains mostly figurative paintings, drawings and sculptures by NYAA faculty, alumni and current students in their MFA program.

Susan L. Siegel, “Untitled” (2011), watercolor on paper and, right, Imogen A. Slater, “Bunnyhorse” (2011), mixed media digital print (all photos by author)

Instead of harkening back to the surrealism of Dali or Magritte, the works displayed seemed to fit directly into Wallace’s definition of Lynchian with a play between innocence, dream states, the mundane and the macabre in many of the works. Even though many different mediums and techniques were employed, the art presented in the exhibition proves that figurative art can still invoke powerful emotions even as the art world moves into more abstract, conceptual and digital realms.

Susan L. Siegel‘s drawing and Imogen A. Slater‘s print use rabbits in order to create a dream-like atmosphere in their works, recalling Lynch’s short film Rabbits (sections of this film were also added to Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire), in which a family of anthropomorphic rabbits spew non-sequiturs on a sitcom sound stage.

Yi Cao, “Girl” (2011), wax, plaster and hair

Made with real hair, Yi Cao’s “Girl” (2011) appears extremely lifelike and almost cherubic when viewed from the front. However, from the back, the hollow space of the sculpture’s head and the light that shines through the eye sockets reaches a fascinating level of macabre.

Courtney S. Murphy, “Reach” (2011), oil on panel

Even the most mundane scene can seem sexualized and slightly creepy in Lynch’s films and this is also reflected in Courtney S. Murphy‘s “Reach” (2011)Rubbing her heels together to take off her fire-engine red pumps, the woman, or possibly man, cannot be seen, giving this painting a fetishistic quality.

Mitra M. Walter, “Untitled” (2011), oil on panel

Shooting at two shadowy figures that could be anything from ghosts to imaginary friends, the young boy in Mitra M. Walter‘s untitled painting shows the other-worldly and surreal side to childhood. The circular shape of the canvas also adds a certain swirling quality to the work, almost like a still from a dream.

Alexandro Berrios, “Suicide” (2010), oil on panel

Perhaps the most chilling work from the show is Alexandro Berrios’s “Suicide” (2010). Hanging from a noose, a uniformed man with clown makeup appears to what appears to be a stage with roses thrown from the audience. Frankly, I was surprised David Lynch hadn’t thought of it first.

While certainly not all the works from NYAA’s Summer Exhibition were unsettling, the amount of Lynchian works was surprising. Happily, even though many of the works were not joyous, many of the artists showing at NYAA’s Summer Exhibition breathed new life into figurative painting by mining the depths of the subconscious and the macabre in the mundane.

 TheNew York Academy of Art’s 5th Annual Summer Exhibition will be on view at Flowers (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until August 6, 2011.

Original David Lynch image via.

Emily Colucci is a recently graduated NYU interdisciplinary Master's student with a focus on art history and gender/sexuality studies. Her interests lie in graffiti, street art and New York-based art from...