The Unified Field: David Lynch at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

It was a very big deal in early October when David Lynch announced via Twitter that there would be a new (short) season of Twin Peaks in 2016 – twenty-five years later, just as the last episode promised. The big deal is not just a matter of people liking the show and wanting to know what happened next. It was more that Lynch, who will be 69 years old in January, seems to have already entered his Emeritus Years. He has a foundation dedicated to getting people to practice Transcendental Meditation, and for a while that seemed to be his principal concern.[i] His last feature film, Inland Empire, was released in 2006. Since then, it’s been short films, music videos, commercials, promotional films, guest appearances (on Family Guy), concert videos (Duran Duran for Unstaged: An Original Series for American Express), his own line of coffee, a predictably-nutty Ice Bucket Challenge, and in the past few years, retrospectives. All this amounts to an artist winding down, enjoying his accolades, and amusing himself. One might wonder if Lynch has anything left to do, creativity-wise.

As it turns out, Lynch has been painting as well, as he always has. Unlike other directors who began in television or editing or theater or photography or writing, Lynch started as a painter, attending the Corcoran School of Art, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. PAFA is currently hosting an exhibition of Lynch’s artwork (he has had other recent exhibitions in London, Frankfurt, Munich, Copenhagen, and elsewhere) and if you can get there, you should go. It runs through January 11, 2015.

Lynch has said that he doesn’t want his painting to be considered an adjunct or gateway into his filmmaking, but that’s precisely what any of us would do. The creation myth of David Lynch-the-director, told and retold in every story about his art, is as follows: while a student at PAFA, Lynch was painting a garden and he saw the plants in the painting move and he heard a wind coming from the canvas. (Yes, coming from the canvas.) “Oh, a moving painting,” he thought. He then moved towards animation and “moving sculptures,” incorporating film techniques into his work, eventually making short films, then the feature-length midnight classic Eraserhead (1977). Hollywood (in the form of Mel Brooks, of all people) called, and now we have a Major American Auteur with an Oeuvre.

Judging from The Unified Field, motion was not simply what Lynch was trying to paint. It may very well be His Grand Subject. Not in the “how do I depict a running horse?” sense of conveying kinetic activity, but in that young Lynch wanted to paint figures that were (always) in some kind of transition, some state of being one thing but becoming something else. Though his work shows the direct influence of Abstract Expressionism, Lynch tends to paint figures; his figures are always having experiences, frequently of internal disruption. Lynch’s breakthrough piece at PAFA, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1966), mixes sculpture, painting, animation, sound, and space, which encourages the viewer to react to it merely formally. But the content is important, as well. It’s one of many early pieces on the subject of emesis, including P.A.F.A. Is Sickening (1967; sorry, no image) and Man Throwing Up (1968); his early short films The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970) both depict traumatized children vomiting blood.

Much of Lynch’s work shows a childish preoccupation with bodily fluids and functions. He resists showing anyone or anything in a state of repose or rest; the viewer is uncomfortable because the image is uncomfortable.

David Lynch, Man Throwing Up (1968)


Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) is a self-portrait, and the very title of P.A.F.A. Is Sickening suggests that Lynch analogizes purgation to creation, particularly for young artists: babies, for instance, take in far too much, can’t process it fully, and just spit it back in a grosser form, mixed with something of themselves. What’s worse, for an artist this process is forced, uncontrollable,and uninteresting to anyone except the artist. Lynch, who has always wanted to reverse the implicit and explicit, to reveal what is hidden, had to begin as one who shows you what you don’t want to see, however common or natural it may be.

Is creation always a kind of nightmare? It seems to be for Lynch. The aggression between parents and children is a common motif in his work; Eraserhead is a classic of parenting-horror, of the baby-as-monster (in the 1970s, everyone was terrified of kids: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Omen etc…). Even more central is the dreadfulness of fantasy itself. In Eraserhead, Henry Spencer’s dreams of the woman in the radiator are the opposite of escape: they make reality less bearable, and lead to him murdering his baby-monster (and, the film implies, to the end of the world itself); likewise, Jeffrey Beaumont’s fantasies in Blue Velvet reveal the evil inside him; in Mulholland Drive (2001), Diane Selwyn’s fantasy—which is probably the entire first half of the film—can only result in making “Rita” less knowable, making her absence more intensely felt, and thus in Diane’s loneliness becoming toxic and suicidal: in one scene she masturbates angrily and self-destructively (a scene that never could have appeared if Mulholland Drive was a television show as originally planned). Even in The Grandmother, the boy’s invention of his own grandmother (on the same bed he soils regularly) suggests incest and a ghastly death; it is of a piece with his cartoon-fancies of murdering his abusive parents. In The Unified Field, several pieces portray children as little terrors, with bulging underpants and matches ready to burn down houses, as in Boy Lights Fire (2010).

David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire (2010)


As a supplement to The Unified Field, PAFA has another exhibit, Something Clicked in Philly: David Lynch and His Contemporaries. As is so often the case with art-student shows, one can see people with some talent but little idea what is worth their time and effort. Their choices of subject-matter are conventional or arbitrary; the works are doodles or imitations (or parodies). Lynch’s own epiphany came when he encountered Francis Bacon’s work, as one can see in Lynch’s Crucifixion triptych.

David Lynch, Crucifixion (1967)


Clearly inspired by Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), Crucifixion is shocking mostly in its very existence: I can’t believe that Lynch, who may be the least Christian of all American artists, actually did this, even as an exercise. But it makes sense if one sees that the Christ of the painting is an expression of what Bacon showed Lynch, which was the Human as a blob of organic matter, growing and decaying, at war with itself, unpredictable, porous, open to influence and possession from outer forces, fascinating and revolting all at once, fitting into patterns that we know to be conventional even though we can’t understand how it all holds together (if it does at all).

My favorite piece in the show—and the one with the strongest links to Western art history—is Holding on to the Relative with One Eye on Heaven (2008). It plays with The Ecstasy of St. Theresa and other images of epiphanic saints, but here the revelation is a true metaphysical panic, not an orgasm or an insight. The woman’s mouth is an actual drilled hole, and the “Relative” in the middle is a clump of matted hair. The red in the middle of it may or may not be paint.

David Lynch, Holding on to the Relative (2008)


But what is the “Relative”? That which is familiar, affiliated, close to oneself, and yet is not what it is, what is open to being something else, what can shift depending on who’s looking at it. A friend suggested that this artwork could be an illustration for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The woman clings to the human materiality of the center, the hair and blood, possibly in fear of losing it in her ascent to whatever is higher. There may be self-realization in such an action; it is a giving over of the self from one force to another. Transcendence is just as awful as escape.

When the PAFA show first opened, Lynch was a genial and generous participant, all too happy to return to Philadelphia and be feted. I saw him speak at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and he was as he generally is – odd but not off-putting, inarticulate but not atavistic. A film-nerd asked him what he thought of the common tendency to associate his work with Freud and Lacan, and he smiled and responded, “I don’t know even the second man. I’ve heard of Freud.” (Laughter from audience.) “There’s a lot of things swimming within every human being. So many things swimming that we don’t see. You meet somebody, you just see the surface. And stories come from ideas, ideas come, and a lot of the ideas that come that I fall in love with have to do with those things that aren’t seen.” He then told a story about a conference of psychoanalysts about Blue Velvet and he had no idea what they were saying. But beneath the vagueness of his initial answer, one can see that, for Lynch, everything is quite literal. Ideas are Things, “psychological states” are Things, feelings are Things, desires are Things. They go around and they get inside us and they live in us and they make us into something else, and most important, they remind us that we are Things, too, and so are other people. A common misconception about the second season of Twin Peaks is that Lynch had originally intended BOB to only be a metaphor, but The Network People made Lynch make him an actual demon. “It steered towards the dangerous waters of suggesting that men cannot be held responsible for their violent actions.” But Fire Walk with Me (1992) bears out precisely this idea. Lynch doesn’t believe that human beings are individual, autonomous agents with consciences and agency who can be held accountable for whatever they do. They do what forces make them do. Lynch’s public utterances are loaded with references to New Agey, Eastern Wisdom concepts, but he’s more Classical than he thinks: E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational provides the best articulation of the Lynchian: “unsystematized, nonrational impulses, and the acts resulting from them, tend to be excluded from the self and ascribed to an alien origin.” In Lynch, as in Sophocles, we find “the overwhelming sense of human helplessness in face of the divine mystery, and of the ate [shame] that waits on all human achievement.”


[i] I saw him speak at the University of Pennsylvania about ten years ago, and TM was all he wanted to talk about. He made the audience sit through two other (unbilled) speakers first, both of whom went on about the educational and artistic benefits of TM, and then Lynch came out and said the same things they said. When the audience asked questions about his movies, he changed the subject. Actual example: Film Dude: “Why is Frank Booth from Blue Velvet such a big fan of Pabst Blue Ribbon?”; David Lynch: “Well, it’s because I like Pabst Blue Ribbon. D’ya know what else I like? Transcendental Meditation. Y’see, when you meditate…”