The talented Mr Lynch
Filmmaker David Lynch on transcendence, Twin Peaks and his first love: painting
THE story seems familiar. An individual, a one-time phenomenon in one field, pulls back from the spotlight to concentrate on their true love: painting. Filmmaker David Lynch, however, is no peripatetic painter. He’s an art school graduate, and as a child he dreamed of a life of painting but thought it an unachievable folly. That was until a mentor showed him it could be otherwise.
Lynch was a promising young artist before moving to the screen in such an indelible fashion, creating off-kilter films and the seminal television series Twin Peaks, which will return next year reimagined 25 years after the crime.
And while the world in 2015 will be waiting to see what exactly the auteur does with that famous series, Lynch will have his artistic focus set, at least briefly, on Australia.
In March, Lynch will make his first visit to these shores when Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art presents one of the largest surveys of his work, a retrospective of the American’s paintings, sculptures and films.
The exclusive show of some 200 works, entitled David Lynch: Between Two Worlds and curated by QAGOMA’s Jose Da Silva, continues a late-career renaissance for a man better known for the breathtaking and singularly distinct cinema and television style that marked the 1980s and 90s, beginning with Eraserhead in 1977 through to Mulholland Drive 24 years later.
Lynch agrees it “sort of is” a renaissance for him, at least as an artist. He has been busy noodling away in his sprawling Los Angeles Hills compound for years; it’s just we haven’t seen many of the fruits of that labour.
“I’ve been painting all through the years and all I ever really wanted to do in the beginning was be a painter,” he says. “So I kept painting but I never showed too much.”
He describes his irregular gallery exhibitions through the years — in his hometown Los Angeles; another in New York in 1987 on the recommendation of his then girlfriend and Blue Velvet star Isabella Rossellini; and others in Japan — as “hit and miss”.
But in 2007, the Paris museum Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain presented the first comprehensive exhibition of Lynch’s art. That exhibition travelled to Milan, Moscow and Copenhagen. “And that started the ball rolling again,” Lynch says.
Last month, his first American museum retrospective, David Lynch: The Unified Field, opened at the Pennsylvania Academy, his former art school. The new QAGOMA exhibition will be a distinct, and larger, offering.
Importantly, the exhibitions are “art shows” rather than cinematic retrospectives (although QAGOMA will screen a retrospective of his film, television and video works at its Cinema- theque). To be sure, through his peak years of The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch influenced more than just cinema. His hallucinatory narratives and visuals informed a multitude of storytellers and took hold of the public to the point at which it seemed we were all ponderering who killed Laura Palmer.
His artworks give a clear view of where that all came from while being their own distinct achievement in his career.
Da Silva says Lynch is not a token painter and sculptor.
“Even on a basic visual level, you understand how the same person is making these films and making this work,” he says. “Unlike some filmmakers who dabble in other media, his work across other media has been central to his ideas about his broader cinematic work.”
Indeed, arguably Lynch’s most striking film work, the 1967 experimental short Six Men Getting Sick, is the apotheosis of his painting morphing into film.
The work was a large-scale resin screen, featuring three protruding impressions of his own head, on to which he projected a one-minute, handpainted loop animating six heads in various stages of distress. The three faces distort, a siren wails and the men’s stomachs fill with fluid that rushes to their mouths.
The art school experimental work elevated his career out of the grime of Philadelphia, the city that so influenced his work. It saw Lynch step off the canvas and into another realm as he explored his notion of the “moving painting”.
Moving to film then was the logical artistic step. “Exactly,” he says of the work that was as much a film as a sculpture or painting. “You know the reason I made that first film, it was a thing that came out of wanting a painting that would move.
“That’s the way I sort of saw cinema, especially in the short films time (of my career). I didn’t know anything about cinema but I sort of saw it as painting with sound and a story, and it was very abstract to me. It was an extension of painting.”
The notion of a “moving painting” is intriguing. It is one way of approaching the ideal of pure cinema yet, counterintuitively, modern cinema often eschews the possibilities of the visual. Composition is ignored in favour of kinetic energy and stories are told via dialogue, not imagery.
Lynch notes dialogue can “be like music” and remains important. “But, for instance, Eraserhead hardly had any dialogue and you know, it is a combination of all those things: dialogue, pictures, sound effects, mood and lighting,” he says. “But it was born out of wanting a painting to move.”
Lynch painted as a child when his family moved between four towns for his father’s jobs as an agriculture department researcher before they ended up in Alexandria, Virginia, where, at the age of 14, he came under the wing of a friend of his father. Artist Bushnell Keeler showed the teenaged Lynch it was perfectly reasonable for adults to paint as a profession.
“A bomb went off in my head,” Lynch recalls. “It was in the back of my mind that (painting) was very nice to do but it wasn’t something I could do when I grew up. Absolutely in that one moment (I was) transfixed and transformed and I thought: ‘That’s all I want to do.’ I got permission from the dialogue from that encounter and that was it.”
Painting, whether his broader cinematic
Head #3 (2013) by David Lynch, below