The Review/Feature/

“Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores”

The dark art of David Lynch began in his paintings

by Dennis Lim
Apr 5, 2017

To mark the release of the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, we are pleased to present these excerpts from Dennis Lim’s monograph David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, reprinted with the permission of the author.

Philadelphia looms large in the personal mythology of David Lynch: a place that both terrorized him and changed the course of his life, his Gomorrah and his Rubicon all in one. A product of small-town America, Lynch credits this one-time epicentre of urban blight with instilling a fear and disgust so extreme it opened a mental pathway to “another world.” He transfigured the city’s post-industrial dereliction into the infernal wasteland of Eraserhead, and the dying gasps of its manufacturing age — clanking gears, machine drone, vented steam — indelibly shaped his aesthetic vocabulary.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

It was art school that brought Lynch to Philly, and it was in his studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he experienced an epiphany that, in the familiar telling, moved him away from painting. He was at work on a canvas when he sensed a wind emanating from within it. What if paintings could move? he wondered. What if they had sound?

The PAFA, the oldest art school in the US, is a proud standard bearer of the academic tradition, which placed paramount importance on representations of the human form. To this day, tucked behind the grand staircase that welcomes visitors to the Academy’s main galleries, are ateliers where students draw and paint from live models and a large collection of antique plaster casts. Its most famous professor, the great realist painter Thomas Eakins, in the late 19th century taught students to dissect corpses and cadavers to better understand human and animal anatomy; he was dismissed for removing a loincloth from a male model in a class that included female students, but many of his innovations to the curriculum endured.

The Academy’s abiding traditionalism made it a good fit for Lynch, who took life-drawing classes in high school and whose primary interest as a visual artist was — and remains — figurative. He has described his early work as “a lot of figures in quiet rooms.” But there is nothing quiet about what is happening within and to most of the figures, which inaugurate a view of the human body, carried through Lynch’s movies, as a site for transformation and a zone of alienation.

"The Man in the Planet" from Eraserhead

Eraserhead, a story of failed procreation within a landscape of defunct industry, links machinery and biology from the get-go, as a scarred demiurge pulls a lever that propels a giant spermatozoon into the cosmos. Some of the earliest drawings and paintings that Lynch produced at the PAFA are biomorphic fantasies that explored curious confluences of flesh and machine. He called them “industrial symphonies” (a term he would also apply to a musical play he staged in 1990), depictions of “mechanical people,” “women who turned into typewriters.” Most emphasized deformity and prosthesis, much as Lynch’s films would, making internal organs visible and rendering biology as machinery, a system of orifices and tubes.

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem "Sweeney Agonistes", 1967

The formative art encounter from Lynch’s student days was a trip to New York City for a Francis Bacon exhibition that included several pivotal works, among them his triptych inspired by T. S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes.” Lynch has described Bacon as “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” There are obvious affinities between Bacon’s and Lynch’s figures, which attest to the materiality and malleability of bodies. But if in the physical drama of his work Bacon pursued what Gilles Deleuze called “the violence of a sensation,” in Lynch’s paintings and films, the horror of mutation is usually tempered by a sensual curiosity, an implicit delight in the potential for new corporeal forms. And while Bacon fixates on man’s animal nature — our common status as meat — Lynch holds a more playful, surrealist view of biology, one in which man, animal, vegetable, and mineral exist on a continuum of matter.

Lynch’s early mixed-media experiments also owe something to Bacon, for whom motion was a kind of asymptotic ideal. Bacon modelled several works on Eadweard Muybridge’s proto-cinematic studies of figures in action and strove to capture the sense of movement in painting. Not long after his moving-painting epiphany, Lynch created a gallery piece that involved both motion and sound. It required dropping a ball bearing down a ramp that would, through a daisy chain of switches and triggers, strike a match, light a firecracker, and cause a sculpted female figure’s mouth to open, at which point a red bulb inside would light up, the firecracker would go off, and the sound of a scream would emerge. Already this pre-cinematic work hints at what would be a recurring trope in Lynch’s films: a lingering focus on (usually female) mouths and parted lips.

Lynch’s next hybrid piece, which he called Six Men Getting Sick, attempted a more elegant transition from static to moving images in the form of stop-motion animation. In keeping with his reverence for Bacon, the first action that Lynch depicted on film is a spasm, an involuntary reflex. Accompanied by a blaring siren and projected onto a screen with three sculpted heads in its top-left corner, this minute-long stop-motion animated loop depicts a row of figures in agony, their digestive tracts overflowing in a collective retch that floods the image with vomit in the form of streaked white paint. The cycle starts again immediately, and its closed-circuit form anticipates the temporal-loop structure that Lynch would apply to more involved narrative films.

Six Men Getting Sick (David Lynch, 1967)

Lynch in fact never stopped painting after his mythical shift from still to moving images, and he has been especially productive during his periodic spells away from filmmaking. More than half of the 100 paintings, drawings, and lithographs in his first US retrospective, at his old student stomping grounds in 2014, were produced since the completion of Inland Empire (2006), which initiated his longest hiatus yet from directing (set to end with the imminent return of Twin Peaks). A closer look at his studio art — which has reached its widest audience in the past decade, with large exhibitions in Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo — reveals numerous points of contact with Lynch’s biography and filmography. The mutant genus spawned in Eraserhead’s traumatic birth appears in several early works; a whole family of them can be seen in a pencil drawing of a living-room scene that foreshadows the rabbit sitcom in Inland Empire. Around the time Lynch discovered transcendental meditation in the ’70s, spiritual motifs emerge, as in an ornate ballpoint rendering of a crucifixion and symmetrical geometric compositions with Renaissance arches, rainbow spectrums, golden beams, and titles like Infusing the Being and Third Ray.

The Lynchian ideal of art as immersion and pipeline to the unconscious produces notably different effects in his moving-image work and in his studio art, which even at its most haunting, leaves less to the imagination. If Lynch’s richest narrative films, especially from Blue Velvet on, have confounded the categories of irony and sincerity, twisting them into strange new affective registers, his paintings often aspire to the willful naiveté of art brut. Lynch has often said he would like to bite his paintings, and even his earliest canvases are textured, incorporating materials like cigarette butts and horse hair. In the early 1990s, the work becomes even more aggressively tactile. Encrusted with rough, heavy impasto, many of these large canvases — painted in some cases with his bare hands — depict a violent action (often pyromanic or sexual) against a field of primordial muck, from which stray objects (wire mesh, a chicken foot, an undulating curtain) occasionally protrude.

David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire, 2010

Lynch’s mistrust of words means that his films often resist the expository function or realist tenor of dialogue, and rely on intricate sound design to evoke what lies beyond language. Conversely, his studio art is notable for a perverse preponderance of text. Many of Lynch’s large, tactile art-brut canvases feature variously cryptic, comic, and ominous inscriptions (Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores; There Is Nothing Here, Please Go Away). Especially in his recent series of smudgy black-and-white lithographs, the verbiage comes to seem obsessive: a compulsion to name, label, and caption which, in heightening the absurdity of words, strips them of their power.

David Lynch, Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores, 1990

If there is a single theme that dominates the second half of Lynch’s filmography, it is what Freud termed the “omnipotence of thoughts,” describing a patient, the Rat Man, who believed in in his own capacity to alter reality through mental processes alone. This kind of magical thinking fits right into Lynch’s world, where the mere fact of consciousness is sufficient cause for terror. The danger of thoughts is a recurring trope in Lynch’s visual art. A photograph from 1988 of a figurine with a chewed-up wad of bubble gum for a head is titled Man Thinking. The 2000 canvas Mister Redman depicts a violent encounter — between the title figure and BOB, presumably of Twin Peaks — that a caption attributes to “wayward activity based upon unproductive thinking.” In a 2013 painting I am Running from Your House, a male figure is in full panicked flight, pursued by a literal cloud of negativity, which is labeled “bad thoughts.” These are the bluntest declarations of a central tenet of the Lynchian universe: thoughts have a material aspect and the world can become a nightmare embodiment of a consciousness out of control.