David Lynch is sixty-eight. A celebrated filmmaker, he is known for his eerie atmospheres, sinister characters, and strange, elliptic plots that often lack logic. But he is at heart a visual artist, an all-rounder who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia back in 1966. Before he was a filmmaker he was a painter, and it is his paintings – many of them previously unseen by the public – which will form the basis of his first US museum retrospective, ‘David Lynch: The Unified Field.” At sixty-eight, it has certainly been a long time coming that the public at large, among them devoted fans of his films, became aware of his parallel career as a painter.
Lynch’s career as an artist began properly in 1967, with the production of Six Men Getting Sick, a short experimental animation that was also a painting and a kinetic sculpture. It features sick grotesque heads regurgitating on loop, with the minimal sound design consisting mostly of a siren. Observers say the aesthetic and the general sense of claustrophobic horror is merely a precursor to his feature films, starting with Eraserhead. But in reality, it propelled him into a career – however brief – as a painter. He began to sell works, inspired by the prominent Irish-British artist Francis Bacon, for $25. These works, along with Six Men Getting Sick, will be exhibited in his retrospective in Philadelphia this month.
Philadelphia itself, alongside Bacon, who painted visceral, bleak figures, many of them suspended in cages, their faces obscured, their bodies flagellated, was an influence on Lynch’s early work, and in many ways continues to influence him today. He says, ‘All of Philadelphia had a kind of coal-dust patina. There was violence and fear and corruption, insanity, despair sadness, just in the atmosphere in that city.’ He spent his formative years among the ‘coal-dust patina,’ among the morgue workers who invited him to see the corpses after midnight. When we look at paintings such as ‘Dog And Child Near My House’, or ‘Ant Bee Tarantula,’ we see the world through his eyes. We see the insanity, the despair, the maddening atmosphere. It is, to quote his film Blue Velvet, ‘a strange world.’ Like his movies, we stand on the precipice as we look at his paintings, knowing we are invited in, but not knowing quite exactly what we have been invited to – and whether we should go any further.
Many people know David Lynch as a filmmaker. They emit frustration at his relatively small back catalogue of feature films and his current lack of activity. One wonders whether he will even make a feature length again, whether he still has the energy. Others show ‘suspicion’ at the idea that Lynch is a painter. But a visual artist is what he is, what he always has been, and through his early short experimental films, some of which are showcased at his retrospective, he could be cited as being America’s forefather of visual art.
Whether it be feature films, short films, video installations or paintings, Lynch is always creating, he is always doing something. His retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy is not exactly a summation of the entire length and breadth of his work, but more an eye-opener. We get to see what, for many of us, has long remain hidden. We get to see what he has been up to during those often prolonged intervals between feature films. More importantly, we get to see David Lynch the complete artist. From his feature films to his paintings, his work is sprawled across Pennsylvania, at different venues. It starts September 13th.