For 35 years David Lynch has been an enthusiastic devotee of Transcendental Meditation. “This field within, this field of pure consciousness” he tells curator, José Da Silva, “has qualities and those qualities are: unbounded intelligence, unbounded creativity, unbounded happiness, unbounded love, unbounded energy and unbounded peace. It’s all positive there within – the big treasury!”
It sounds marvellous, but anyone reading these words before setting off to see the fruits of the artist’s creative labours in David Lynch: Between Two Worlds, at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is in for a shock. All the world knows this simple equation: “David Lynch = weird” but it’s staggering to plumb the depths of a weirdness that manifests itself in such an avalanche of dark, morbid, violent, scatological imagery.
The catalogue interview continues: “The side effect of expanding consciousness is that negativity starts to lift away. You see things like stress, trauma, anxieties, depression, hate, anger, fear, all start to lift away. So I say it’s just like gold is coming from within and garbage is going out. It’s a beautiful, supremely beautiful thing for the human being.”
These words may hold the key to this strange, unlovable exhibition. Lynch’s expanding consciousness is doing wonders for his own state of mind, but all the garbage is being siphoned off into his films, animations, paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs. There are moments of startling beauty in Lynch’s audio-visual work, but his paintings and graphics are almost unrelievedly ugly and brutal.
What’s worse is that they display a kind of adolescent desire to be gross or offensive, while their crudeness of composition has to be seen to be believed. It seems that Lynch’s idea of art as psychic catharsis precludes any capacity for self-criticism. The closest he comes may be a print entitled Oh, I have made a mess (2009), in which a figure stands, head in hands, alongside a shapeless black mound.
It may be a supremely beautiful thing for the artist to produce paintings such as Shadow of a twisted hand across my house (1988), but it’s a grim business for the viewer. The sky is composed of grey, horizontal smears of oil paint, the earth created by vertical smears. House and hand are drawn in stick-figure fashion. The name of the picture is printed in tiny characters across the bottom of the canvas.
As with so many of Lynch’s paintings it’s a work that seems to envy the directness of children’s art or Outsider art, but it’s too self-conscious to achieve the same impact. The massive two-panel picture, Bob sees himself walking towards a formidable abstraction (2000) feels no less wilfully repulsive. Against a field of baby-shit brown, a lumpen figure made from some kind of solidified glue faces a large, grey, finger-painted obelisk. The title is spread across both panels like a word puzzle.
One sees such paintings at art schools, made by undergraduates with big ideas but no discernible talent. Like those student tyros, Lynch borrows freely from many different sources. Francis Bacon is an obvious influence, but also early David Hockney, and perhaps R.B.Kitaj. There is a large helping of Dada and Surrealism, but also suggestions of the Chicago Imagists, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Kienholz. In an ironic echo of Bacon – or is it homage? – Lynch puts his paintings inside imposing shiny frames.
When I saw Lynch’s debut feature film, Eraserhead (1978), it was a case of love at first sight, so it is a depressing experience to wade through room after room of terrible paintings and prints. Although Lynch’s ventures into different media have prompted critics to call him a “Renaissance Man”, anyone deserving such a title should be equally good at these various pursuits.
There is a severe, formal elegance about a series of black-and-white photos of factories, even if the idea is not particularly original. One turns with trepidation to Lynch’s musical activities, represented by a series of solo recordings and collaborations. I listened dutifully to many different pieces, but it all sounded like the studio out-takes Lee Hazelwood forgot, as interpreted by Throbbing Gristle. What is to be made of the track, Crazy Clown Time? Lynch supplies the vocals in a squeaky falsetto over a dirge-like wall of sound. It is accompanied by a video clip in which people do zany things at a party, then run around the back yard.
The only piece that felt instantly right was Angelo Badalamenti’s eerie theme for Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks (1990). This may be because the music was already familiar from the series, but it felt like an actual composition rather than a drunken bass line staggering its way across a field of noise, with a vocal by Mickey Mouse.
After all this diverse activity, it’s the movies that define Lynch as a creative personality. He is a cult director who has made inroads into the mainstream with films such as The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986). Even a movie as mysterious as Mulholland Drive (2001) found a large popular audience. The end of the line was Inland Empire (2006), a film so abstract and confusing it was said the actors themselves didn’t know what it was about.
Lynch has rarely been content to follow a conventional form of narrative. His films may veer suddenly into the absurd logic of a dream, with no apparent explanation. After watching Mulholland Drive twice I felt I could almost venture an interpretation, but Inland Empire left one trapped within the suffocating atmosphere of a dream from which you can’t awake, even though you know it is only a dream.
It’s unlikely that Lynch scripts his movies with the pinpoint symbolism and repetitions employed by directors such as Hitchcock or Kubrick. His films have been given psychoanalytical and autobiographical readings, with various characters viewed as doppelgängers for the director. Yet there is a randomness about the way events unfold, usually accompanied with a sense of foreboding or menace. This is probably most striking in Blue Velvet, in which we tense up with every appearance of the psychopathic Frank, played by Dennis Hopper.
Events in Lynch’s movies, whether good nor bad, do not need obvious reasons or motivations – they simply happen. Something dark and disturbing can rise up from the heart of suburbia, or moments of rapture appear out of nowhere, as in the famous scene in Eraserhead in which Henry watches the girl in the radiator sing “In Heaven everything is fine…”
We circle around the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder in Twin Peaks, not sure whether we actually want it all to be resolved. As there is a new series on the way later this year, after a 12-year hiatus, viewers will have the chance to plunge back into that same bizarre-but-ordinary atmosphere. Or maybe not, as Lynch has just announced that he has opted out of the project, after Showtime refused to commit the funds he required.
While Lynch’s film narratives may be full of surprises and disjunctures, until Inland Empire came along every one of these features boasted a strong storyline. They may be surreal shaggy dog tales but they tantalised the viewer’s expectations, making it seem as if each incident was meaningful in some oblique but profound manner.
The same cannot be said about Lynch’s paintings and prints, or his music. Remove the narrative, no matter how convoluted, and one diffuses the mystery. At best these works resemble sketches or studies in which Lynch tries out ideas for future projects. One also misses the craftsmanship of the movies, made in collaboration with so many technicians and specialists.
Left alone in front of the easel or the lithographer’s stone, Lynch has been free to indulge himself without the commercial and logistical considerations that impinge on a director. His exalted reputation as a filmmaker has ensured there will always be an audience for these other works, and galleries willing to give him an exhibition. This has led him down the path of the dilettante.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person who walks into this exhibition as a fan and emerges as a skeptic. David Lynch has always been an enigma, but I’m still trying to understand the gulf that exists between the sophistication of his films and the lumbering awfulness of his artistic and musical experiments. In interviews Lynch has voiced an opinion that everyone has two or more selves. In this show he provides the hard evidence.
David Lynch: Between Two Worlds
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 7 June.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th April, 2015