David Lynch is having an art show. Yes, that David Lynch.
It isn’t the first for the creative force whose obsessively weird sensibility has brought us films such as “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet” and “Inland Empire” and the TV series “Twin Peaks.” An artist since his high school days, Lynch has chalked up 32 solo shows including three appearances in the late 1980s and early ‘90s at the James Corcoran Gallery in Santa Monica and a 40-year retrospective of paintings, drawings, photographs and installations in 2007 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. He also showed 53 photographic images in a high-profile collaboration with Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse this summer at Michael Kohn Gallery in L.A.
But the event that opened over the weekend at Griffin in Santa Monica, in collaboration with Corcoran, is the first in a long time to present a substantial body of new paintings. Thirteen mixed-media works, measuring up to 6 feet high and 10 feet wide, are gritty, witty and every bit as twisted as you might expect.
“Oh . . . I Have a New Shirt,” a big, mostly beige piece that packs a punch, depicts a man with extraordinarily long arms grasping a folded shirt in a cardboard box, as if he’s showing off a gift. But in the lower left corner of the painting, a woman lies in a pool of blood. The top half of her body is out of the picture, but what’s there is not a pretty sight. She’s still wearing black spike heels, but her baby blue skirt is hiked up, exposing a bare rump. A hand-lettered sentence above the corpse informs viewers: “my girlfriend died last night.”
Well, what did you think Lynch would paint? An arsonist tossing a burning pine cone into a house? A woman in a neck brace threatening her husband with an electric knife if he doesn’t hurry up and change the TV channel? Those images are here, too, part of an artistic outpouring completed in the last year or so.
“I love the show,” Lynch says, in a freewheeling conversation at the gallery. “The space is what you want. It’s not a museum space, but the big room is impressively big and real tasty for work.”
The feast that he has set out for public consumption includes expansive, multifaceted scenes that have “a kind of Renaissance thing I like,” he says. Smaller works, mostly portraying distorted heads, are “in a different world, a little bit more of an absurd world. They are kind of like sophisticated cartoons.” As for the text in the paintings, he likes its shape as well as its meaning. “Sometimes it’s like a title,” he says, “but it’s also important for a kind of story.”
In sharp contrast to the darkness of his art, Lynch comes across as a surprisingly sunny guy. Thoughtful and gentlemanly at 63, he deals with questions about ideas in his work by waxing philosophical or describing basic processes of “sitting and thinking” and “moving a pen or pencil around, like daydreaming. It’s hard to take credit for anything,” he says, “because it just comes along. I don’t know how it happens.”
“When you are working on a film, you focus on that, and there’s very little time to do anything else,” Lynch says of his on-again, off-again art-making schedule. “But in between I always paint. It’s a different thing, totally, and it takes a while to get into it. If you were just working on painting, I think you would grow faster.” But the Paris retrospective had a revitalizing effect, he says. “I never really was hitting it and then suddenly I started finding my own thing, so I am happier about it all now.”
The exhibition is, at first glance, a theatrical spectacle, with the paintings presented behind glass in massive frames and twinkling electric lights embedded in the largest works. The Lynchian form of “mixed media” also includes plastic soldiers, wristwatches, wire, cloth, carpet, paper, plaster and wood. The biggest pieces weigh up to 300 pounds, including a 200-pound frame.
“Materials are critical,” he says. “And I love the glass. I don’t know exactly why, psychologically, but I love the jewel box thing with the frames. I saw a Francis Bacon show in the ‘60s at Marlborough Gallery in New York, and he had his paintings framed this way. I loved his paintings and the frames just put them through the roof. I said, ‘If I ever get money, I want to do that.’ I don’t have money, but I have enough to do it.”
Full of praise for the Los Angeles framer, Jane Berman of Ota House, Lynch says that “the paintings will live in these frames. They are part of the thing.”
As profiles of Lynch point out, the native of Missoula, Mont., had a remarkably normal upbringing, but his father’s job as a research scientist with the Department of Agriculture required frequent moves during David’s youth. He decided to be an artist at 14, while living in Alexandria, Va. After taking Saturday classes at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., in his last year of high school, he spent a year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“I hated the school in Boston,” he says. “The students weren’t doing anything. I was disillusioned. But then my buddy Jack Fisk went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and I ended up going there. It had a great building, a great atmosphere. The students were working all the time. It was so inspiring. That whole time in Philadelphia was incredibly important to me. That’s when I started making films.”
Lynch moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and maintains a studio in the Hollywood Hills. He has traveled widely and is looking forward to exhibitions in Germany and Poland, but he knows where he comes from.
Digging into memories of his early days, he recalls a trip to Europe with Fisk, when he thought he’d stay for three years but returned after 15 days.
“We were going to Salzburg to study with Oskar Kokoschka,” Lynch says of the Austrian Expressionist he never met. “We went there. It was so clean, I couldn’t stand it. So we went over to Paris. Then Jack wanted to go to Portugal and I wanted to go to Athens because this girl I liked was going there. We flipped a coin, I won and we went to Athens. We took the Orient Express down there. That was really fantastic. But then I woke up one morning in this really cheap hotel in Athens, and there were about 15 lizards on the ceiling. I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not going to be able to work here,’ so we went back home.”
David Lynch was freaked out by lizards?
It wasn’t just that, he says. “The feel of the place for painting, it just wasn’t right. Sometimes we have to go away to realize what we have.”