Filmmaker David Lynch Brings His Uniquely Dark Worldview to Canvas

David Lynch, Bob Finds Himself in a World for Which He has No Understanding, 2000

Courtesy of the Artist
David Lynch, Bob Finds Himself in a World for Which He has No Understanding, 2000
As in his films, David Lynch’s paintings invite viewers to explore the abyss.

As in his films, David Lynch’s paintings invite viewers to explore the abyss.

Josh Telles

David Lynch

“There’s a thing called freedom, and it’s very, very important. Free to think anything and do anything […] You need to have freedom to do your work. Any restriction is a sadness, and it can kill creativity.”

David Lynch

Is discord a sign of greatness? Many artists that are now celebrated, such as Caravaggio and El Greco, were at the time not appreciated by the critics nor their contemporaries. Called disrespectful and unorthodox, such artists were seen as rebels, freaks, and punks. In terms of punk, David Lynch has the hairstyle. The now white, wild, yet perfectly styled, familiar and comforting high riff is arguably the most recognizable feature of the American director. Born in 1946 in Missoula, Montana, David Lynch’s childhood years were spent moving around the United States to follow his father’s assignments as a USDA research scientist. Despite the frequent relocations, Lynch’s young life was the perfect example of 1960s America: “[it] was a dream world, those droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees,” he recalled.

Always interested in the arts, Lynch began his career as a painter by enrolling first at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (he dropped out after a year in 1965) and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1966. During an interview at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, in 2015, Lynch mentioned that the transition from painting to film happened one night. While looking at his unfinished painting of a garden at night, he first heard a wind coming from it and then saw the leaves moving. He realized: “Oh, a moving painting.” This epiphany was followed by his first short, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) in 1967, a four-minute short titled The Alphabet in 1968, and another short in 1970 called The Grandmother.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1971, Lynch began to work on his first feature-length film, Eraserhead, that would come out only in 1977. Despite initial rejections and negative press, the film has become a cult movie to the point that popular TV shows and cult classics, like Gilmore Girls, reference it. Eraserhead is important because it featured elements and symbols that since then have been recurring in Lynch’s cinematic universe: electricity, the outer space or void, deformed beings, dreams and the subconscious, and the importance of sounds and music as clarifying and leading elements in the storyline. After Eraserhead, Lynch directed The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and Mulholland Drive (2001). His 1990 series Twin Peaks changed television and us, as viewers, forever. The recurring line “The owls are not what they seem” is the core message of the series: the good and the bad, the shown and the hidden, time and space, are all variables that co-exist in the universe and in mankind.

Lee Baxter

Installation view, David Lynch at MIF19, Lamp Selection detail, early 2000s (Industrial Empire gallery)

Lynch’s paintings, photographs, and sculptures might be less known but they are as evocative and provocative as his films. In July 2019, the Manchester International Festival (MIF) presented My Head is Disconnected, the first major exhibition of Lynch’s works in the UK. Professor Sarah Perks, the curator of the exhibition, noted: “You have to embrace the creative energy and immerse yourself sensually across this Lynchian feast of still image, moving image, sound, music, theatricality […].” Even in the case of My Head is Disconnected, Lynch takes us on a journey made of electricity, dark forests, shadows, unsettling dreams, and existential questions. “Where are you going, you fucking idiot?” asks a man surrounded by engulfing darkness in the 2009 lithograph A Lonely Figure Talks to Himself Softly. It might be the most profound question we are forced to ask ourselves.

The fascination and love that many have with David Lynch and his works are counterbalanced by the rejection that others have. “It makes no sense” is a frequent comment together with “this is a journey into the mind of a madman.” If we look at his films and Twin Peaks, the elements that spark these adverse reactions are the open endings, the psychedelic portrayal of nuclear explosions, stars, natural elements, the screams and the violence, the seemingly pointless disturbing sounds, and the unsettling feeling that something is always crawling under the surface. The opening scene of Blue Velvet exemplifies this. Behind the white fences, the flowers, and the children going to school, there is an underworld of voracious insects and decay. Nothing is what it seems.

Woman With Small Dead Bird, 2018.
Courtesy of the Artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

David Lynch, Woman With Small Dead Bird, 2018

Mullholland Drive.
Courtesy of Park Circus Studio Canal

Still from Mullholland Drive, 2001

My Head Is Disconnected, 1994.
Courtesy of the Artist, Private Collection

David Lynch, My Head Is Disconnected, 1994-1996

Blue Velvet.
Courtesy of Park Circus MGM Studios

Still from Blue Velvet, 1986

David Lynch Exhibition at MIF19.
Michael Pollard

Installation view, David Lynch at MIF19

David Lynch Exhibition at MIF19.
Michael Pollard

Installation view, David Lynch at MIF19

David Lynch Exhibition at MIF19.
Michael Pollard

Installation view, David Lynch at MIF19

David Lynch Exhibition at MIF19.
Michael Pollard

Installation view, David Lynch at MIF19

In his review of My Head is Disconnected, the critic Adrian Serle wrote in The Guardian that “There is no real development in Lynch’s art, always the same sour atmosphere, the same writing on his mixed-media paintings, the same evil fun.” If we consider Lynch’s art as a whole, and not as separate endeavours, it is hard to agree with Serle’s take. There is an evident bridge between Lynch’s art as a director and as a painter, photographer, and sculptor. Lynch’s characters, whether on paper or on film, appear to be the embodiments of our fears and fragility. There is no evil fun. In Eraserhead, we see the unsettled worker in an industrial town, while in Twin Peaks we are confronted with the secrets of a beautiful, yet dead girl washed ashore. In Lynch’s painting, Bob finds himself in a world for which he has no understanding, we are reminded of Kafka’s protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa who, one day, woke up to find himself transformed into a verminous bug. The disturbing aspect of David Lynch’s art can possibly be identified with humanity’s darkest side. How many of us would be comfortable sharing their wildest dreams with strangers? How many would speak of those grotesque moments that secretly make us giggle? How many would openly laugh at life’s dark humor?

We all experience nuclear explosions in our heads, the feeling of not recognizing ourselves in the mirror, the sense of loneliness. But society demands explanations, definite endings, polite feelings. In the art world though, we are free. Films, photographs, sculptures, and paintings open windows on facets of our world that, too frequently, we are not able or permitted to look at. “There’s a thing called freedom,” Lynch said during the interview in Brisbane in 2015, ”and it’s very, very important. Free to think anything and do anything […] You need to have freedom to do your work. Any restriction is a sadness, and it can kill creativity.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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