Even if David Lynch had never crafted mind-bending, award-winning films like Blue Velvet or reinvented what television could be with Twin Peaks, he would still have made an indelible impression on the art world as a painter. Before he found his way to cinema, painting was his passion, and in 1965 Lynch moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in order to follow his muse. According to Lynch, there was something about the city and the people around him that triggered his boundless creativity and opened up a worldview that carries through his work to this day.
Though Lynch only lasted a year at PAFA, he credited the institution and its faculty with providing all manner of inspiration for his work. Now PAFA is returning the favor with David Lynch: The Unified Field, the first ever exhibition of Lynch’s paintings in the United States, which opened in September and runs through Jan. 11, 2015.
There are roughly 90 pieces included in Unified Field, and they tell a remarkable narrative. The early work, which dates back as early as 1965, is raw and rudimentary, but already many of Lynch’s obsessions are in full effect. They are captured in paintings like the disturbingly lovely Sick Man With Elephantine Arm, which finds Lynch exploring body horror and emotional states so powerful that they manifest themselves in physical manifestations—in this case vomit.
There’s a straight line between pieces like Sick Man With Elephantine Arm and Lynch’s first-ever film project, an installation called Six Men Getting Sick that is also being presented at the show at PAFA. While the film itself has been available on a number of Lynch-related DVD releases (and is available in full on YouTube), but it really needs to be experienced live. Though it runs less than a minute long, it’s a fully immersive experience: The animations of the half-dozen figures vomiting is projected on a wall that includes three sculpted heads (casts of Lynch’s actual face), with a loop of a siren filling the room as the only sound. It’s strangely intense, and when kept on a continuous loop, it expresses the same kind of hypnotic horror that fueled Lynch’s feature debut Eraserhead.
In fact, the roots of many of Lynch’s films can be found in Unified Field. Across his entire career, there’s a certain childish wonder that informs many of Lynch’s paintings—the same kind of brutal naiveté that sends Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont into the night in Blue Velvet and fuels Naomi Watts’ Betty Elms’ wide-eyed sleuthing in Mulholland Drive. Many of Lynch’s drawings and sketches involve doubles and twins, which fed into the plots of both Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. His painting turns more violent at the dawn of the ’90s, which makes sense for a guy who made the savage Wild at Heart and the brutal Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The concept of home has always been a fixation, hence the rudimentary benevolence of both Bob from Twin Peaks and Lynch’s painting I Burn Pinecone and Throw In Your House.
The Unified Field also provides a bit of context for Lynch’s earliest work by presenting a series of paintings and sketches made by Lynch’s contemporaries at PAFA. There are incredibly illuminating, as there is definitely a narrative thread running through everybody’s work, as though Philadelphia’s crumbling, crime-ridden industrial center had a galvanizing effect on the other minds floating around PAFA at the back half of the 1960s. There’s plenty of body horror, as though the perception was that humanity was losing its fundamental abilities to function as a species. But there’s also an incredible amount of beauty in a lot of that work, something that Lynch has always folded into his own paintings as well.
The show also posits Lynch as an artist obsessed with physicality. He notes that he mostly abandoned paintbrushes long ago, instead preferring to drip or use his hands. His more recent work combines paint, light boxes, adhesives, and other vaguely bodily fluid-esque materials, all staged on gigantic swaths of cardboard that give the pieces a mundane, decaying quality. But he’s been playing with the limits of painting his whole career—there are a handful of early paintings that feature crumpled up cigarette filters that look suspiciously like human teeth.
By far my favorite piece presented in David Lynch: The Unified Field was a painting called My Head Is Disconnected. Created some time between 1994 and 1996, it presents a crude figure whose cubed head has separated from his misshapen body. It’s dark, but there’s also a certain whimsy to it as well, and that is as accurate a descriptor of David Lynch’s film work as there is. It’s everything I love about Lynch’s bizarrely wonderful body of work, be it on film, in television, or splashed across canvases.
David Lynch: The Unified Field is an absolute must for anybody who has rhapsodized over Eraserhead or tried to pick apart Inland Empire. For more information, head over to PAFA’s website. To get a better sense of the show, watch Lynch himself walking through the museum.