Astonishingly, ‘My Head is Disconnected’ is the first major exhibition of David Lynch’s work to be shown in the UK.
It brings together work spanning decades of Lynch’s career, and includes paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. The exhibition is part of a David Lynch takeover at Manchester’s Home, which includes a series of screenings, curated by Lynch, and music events hosted by Chrysta Bell.
Lynch, born in Missoula, Montana in 1946, is one of those rare creatures that somehow manage to combine mainstream success with experimental, sometimes radical, film-making. But interestingly, despite the commercial success of his films and his exposure to an even wider TV audience thanks to the success of Twin Peaks, few realise that Lynch began his career as a painter, (His first film came about because of an urge to create a ‘moving painting’) and painting and drawing continue to form an important part of his creative output.
Rather than presenting the work chronologically, the exhibition offers us a series of themed rooms: ‘City on Fire’, ‘Nothing Here’, ‘Industrial Empire’, and ‘Bedtime Stories’. There are occasional references within the pictures, or in the accompanying text, to Lynch’s films, but those expecting a series of Twin Peaks tie-ins will be disappointed. That said, the pictures and films do share many of the same visual preoccupations: forests, domestic homes, electric lights, fire etc.
The spirit of play is everywhere in the work. Lynch experiments with materials and delights in the stuff he uses. This is embodied nowhere better than the collection of strange lamps designed by Lynch and included in the exhibition as a breathing space among other, darker creations. They could be props from their creator’s films. (For Blue Velvet fans, it is not difficult to imagine Dean Stockwell crooning ‘In Dreams’ into one as though it were a microphone.) Many of the works on canvas are as much constructed as they are painted, but this contrasts with the lovely simplicity of the prints and drawings. Lynch is obviously a man who takes delight in the act of pushing ink or crayon around a sheet of paper.
There is a strong feeling of narrative in many of the pictures. This is partly the nature of the images (most of them depict one or more ‘characters’ involved in some kind of drama, as though we have interrupted a scene in medias res) and partly down to the inclusion of elements of text in the images. The text is fragmentary and simplistic. It has the feeling of pieces of snatched dialogue, taglines, or childlike descriptions of the scenes that are playing out in the picture. The combination of image and text implies a bigger story, a world beyond the edges of the canvas.
The resulting visual stream-of-consciousness leaves us with something like a storyboard of Lynch’s inner world. Reinforcing this idea of a narrative, the sections of the exhibition are referred to as ‘Chapters’.
The figures acting out the dramas of these broken narratives are stretched, distorted or reduced to an assemblage of matter. As the exhibition title warns us, many of them have their heads disconnected, anchored to their bodies by filaments of wire as if to stop them from flying away all together.
There is something visceral in the construction of the figures; built from epoxy and latex, they bulge tumor-like from the surface of the canvas. Even the surfaces of the supports (which often seem to have been assembled from whatever Lynch had to hand) are tortured, gouged, scratched and, abraded.
Inevitably people want to know where Lynch’s ideas come from and the meanings behind his work — something that Lynch is always reluctant to discuss. He often speaks about his artistic process, but rarely about the sources of his subject matter: ‘Psychology destroys the mystery, this kind of magic quality.’ But, as a spectator of his world, it is impossible not to wonder. One of the first paintings in the show is perhaps a sign post for the rest of the exhibition.
The picture is large scale and draws you into its built-up surface, which shows a small figure lost in a wood. Its title is ‘Bob Finds Himself in a World of Which He Has No Understanding’. In interviews, Lynch talks a lot about catching things – ideas, dreams, moments. One thing is for certain – the content of his work is varied and eclectic, and is uniquely Lynch — playful and dark. Whatever the source, the result is an uncanny brainstorm of sex, violence, home, automobiles — nightmarish and funny in equal measure.
Even without seeing the paintings, their titles demonstrate an obsession with our inner life and anxieties: ‘My Shadow is Always With Me’, ‘Oh…I said A Bad Thing’, Oh, I Made A Mess’. Viewing the work you get a strong sense of childhood fears and a preoccupation with the idea of ‘home’ – sometimes as a dark place, sometimes as a place of refuge threatened by malevolent outside forces. In interviews Lynch speaks fondly of his childhood, but has also spoken of his early awareness of a darker world that existed beyond the boundaries of his happy home-life.
‘My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building back-yard forts, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.’
The extent to which any of Lynch’s work is autobiographical is impossible to guess. The subject matter feels intimate, as though we have invaded the artist’s private world. Perhaps more importantly his paintings and drawings seem to capture not just individual memories or fleeting thoughts, but their texture. The feeling of a dream, or a memory, is hard to define and harder still to reproduce in an artwork or film. Lynch is one of the few artists or filmmakers I know who is able to do this.
Only in one or two of the pictures is the subject explicitly autobiographical. The painting ‘Philadelphia’ depicts 2429 Aspen Street, where Lynch lived during an important crossroads in his life — a time that marked the beginning of both his career as a film maker, and his reluctant fatherhood. The city made a lasting impression on Lynch. In the 2016 film ‘David Lynch: The Art of Life’ he said; ‘It was kind of a mean town; a poor man’s New York City. There was a thick fear in the air. There was a feeling of sickness, of corruption, racial hatred. But Philadelphia was perfect to spark things.’ Other works imply autobiographical elements too. The thoughts, situations, details he gives us are so unlikely they have a ring of truth. But are they real or from dreams? Does it matter?
To some, Lynch’s paintings are puerile or childish. Despite his admiration for Lynch as a director, David Foster Wallace described Lynch’s paintings as ‘somehow derivative-seeming and amateurish. Like the stuff you could imagine Francis Bacon doing in junior high.’ I have some sympathy with Wallace, the apparent naivety of Lynch’s work can seem self-conscious, or premeditated. But, Lynch’s artworks, like his films, have a compulsive quality, a seductive darkness that is difficult to look away from, even when it disturbs us. Lynch sucks you into his dream, and, like Bacon, Lynch’s work is highly individual and seems to exist in its own parallel world.
For me, part of the fascination with Lynch is his constant experimentation – the success or failure of a piece is not in the aesthetic qualities of the finished painting, but in how it expresses an idea – or the feeling of an idea. They represent those moments when dreams and memories puncture the bubble of the ‘real’ world — Lynch’s characteristic ability is to combine strangeness and banality. If these pictures do reveal his memories, they have been filtered and given a life of their own.
‘David Lynch: My Head is Disconnected’ continues at Home, Manchester, ended on the 29th September 2019.
More information about art by David Lynch: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
All photographs courtesy of Home Manchester and David Lynch.