David Lynch probably deserves more recognition as a visual artist than he currently receives, but that recognition cannot but shrink from the bright light of his reputation as a filmmaker. Lynch’s work in film is an idiolect within the Hollywood system, a language all its own that only its maker can speak and understand. Devotees of his work – and I count myself among that number; Wild at Heart (1990) hit me as I imagine the spear tip of Bernini’s angel hit Saint Teresa – are rewarded only as consumers. Just as you can’t crib from Kafka, so singular was his applied imagination, you can’t even emulate Lynch. His vision may be even more singular: The derivative ‘Lynchian’ doesn’t explain anything. It’s more likely uttered when, uncomfortably stimulating as it might have been, we haven’t a clue as to what we’ve just witnessed.
So what’s up with the paintings? The centrepiece of Lynch’s show is titled Airplane and Tower (2013), which is exactly what it shows, cartoonishly though, with entire tubes of Titanium white and Payne’s grey sacrificed to the canvas’s more than three-metre expanse. The plane, something like a B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ as a child might draw it (note the signature cockpit ‘bubble’), aims right and down, as if to hit the tower, whose heavy timbers also give it a midcentury feel. A predecessor to the US Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress the B-36 was the first Cold War weapon of mass destruction (after the bomb itself of course). It began flying in 1949, three years after Lynch was born, and was designed to deliver an intercontinental nuclear payload without needing to stop for refuelling.
Is this the stuff of Lynch’s nightmares? Does one even dare ponder the bubbling murk of that man’s unconscious? (Relatedly, is it any wonder that Lynch is such a vocal advocate and generous patron of transcendental meditation? Anything to keep the hounds at bay, I guess.) The planes reappear in similar station elsewhere (Airplanes, Airplane and Dumptruck, Bingo, all 2013), but never with any more gusto. The childlike execution – one could say ‘deskilled’ – pervades, and is best served by the series of ink-on-paper works that come closest to schematics or storyboards – eg, Red Man Does Magic Near His House or He Has His Tools and His Chemicals (also 2013). Less iconographically fraught, these pieces actually let the material – the bleeding ink, the stained paper – do some work. Recall that one can’t represent the unconscious, only let it erupt, and only in the place where it has always been (‘Wo es war, soll Ich werden,’ as Freud would say).
Lynch really should stick to works on paper. Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center in New York, has curated two side rooms of work from Lynch’s archives of drawings and photographs (under the heading of Naming), and it’s based on what Littman has dug up that Lynch deserves his card-carrying visual-artist credentials. The photographs will be interesting for those who have always wondered what Eugène Atget would make of 1970s and 80s Los Angeles. But it’s Lynch’s little watercolours that surprise. Particularly the undated As It Was and Is It True, echoes of Wols or early Dubuffet here that are all the more unsettling without that safe shore of chronology. They are rather fresh and fecund patches of authenticity among garden-variety work that looks like what someone thought looked like what the filmmaker ‘David Lynch’ might make.
This review was originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of ArtReview.