Special Agent Dale Cooper from the TV series “Twin Peaks” once said, “When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention." I never had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia, but I found myself there last week attending a conference. I was intrigued by the city because it had an enormous influence on my favorite filmmaker David Lynch. As it so happened, two months ago, Philly opened a special David Lynch exhibit featuring much of the work he created while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). My worlds of inquiry had collided, and I had to take advantage of both. The David Lynch exhibit is located in the Historic Landmark Building of the Academy on Broad Street. The museum is a sanguine brick Victorian Gothic treasure in the heart of Philadelphia. “David Lynch: The Unified Field” exhibit is located on the top floor and is comprised of three exhibition rooms. It contains approximately 90 paintings and drawings from 1965 until circa 2013. The exhibit also displays several of his short films from his time at PAFA. Much of the work in the collection has never been on public display. According to the PAFA exhibition, David Lynch explained “I never had what I consider an original idea until I was in Philly.” This is really what the exhibition is about: the “unified field” both in terms of the external (the media through which Lynch explored his art) as well as the internal (the fields of the conscious/subconscious, dreams, nature, and urban decay in which he explored his art).
Lynch had studied art at schools in Washington, D.C. and Boston, but it was in Philadelphia where he discovered his true voice. Themes that reoccur throughout his career emerged during his time at PAFA. Although Lynch's first medium was painting, it was in Philly in 1967 that he crossed over from still art into the dynamic cine of moving images. The city was ground zero for his film career.
The first room of the exhibition contains early paintings and sketches from his years at PAFA. It also includes a TV, which plays his early experimental films on a loop while the attendees gaze upon his works. These early films include “The Alphabet” (1968, 4 min.), “The Grandmother” (1970, 34 min.), “16mm Experiments” (ca. 1967-1969, 21 min., 40 sec.), and “Opening of James Harvard’s ‘Crayola’ Exhibition, Dianne Vanderlip Gallery, Philadelphia” (1967, 3 min., 8 sec.). “The Grandmother” particularly struck me because it reminded me of the themes of Lynch’s film “Eraserhead” (1977). An abused young boy plants a seed in order to grow a benevolent grandmother who will help him escape the domestic violence in his home. Sexual violence, distortions of nature, birth and urban horror play out in ways that reminded me of his AFI film. (For my blog post about "Eraserhead," click here.)
In this first exhibition room, I was impressed by the boldness, texture and elements comprising the paintings – including horsehair, cigarette butts and resin. A television played in rotation Lynch’s short films while the viewer gazes at an abstract painting of a man getting sick as well as a rendering of the “baby,” which would feature prominently in the 1977 film “Eraserhead.” At the center of the first exhibition room is a case comprised of sketches of the “baby,” too.
The second exhibition room is titled “Home.” The explanation of “Home” really distills Lynch’s preoccupation with nostalgia, childhood and the importance of place on the subconscious. The PAFA plaque reads “These are issues Lynch is close to and partially explain why his work deals so often with violence, sexuality, and the potential for something sinister to be discovered in one’s backyard.”
According to David Lynch, “[Home] is a place where things go wrong.” The featured paintings explore gun violence in the home and fleeing from the home – a place that should be a site of refuge rather than one of “bad thoughts,” violence and death.
The third and last exhibition room, “States of Being,” represent the last twenty years of Lynch’s work. As in much of his work, he explores the unnerving opposites of good and evil in an almost childlike dream. According to the PAFA exhibit, “Lynch’s vision can bear extreme darkness and optimism in the same work. ‘It is why we exist,’ he claims, ‘To gain divine mind through knowledge and experience of combined opposites.’”
The influences on Lynch’s oeuvre, including the importance of the subconscious and transcendental meditation, are especially evident in these more recent works. The 1994-96 work, “My Head is Disconnected,” is ambiguous in its connotation. Is the disconnected head a symbol of the mind's liberation or the body's death? It is this ambiguity and playfulness that I enjoy in his pieces. There is a kind of horror in transcendence and change. We mutter about it all the time – the fear of change. That’s why these pieces are so powerful. For example, the “Holding onto the Relative” (2008), features an exaggerated figure desperately clinging to earth while he or she is in the process of being pulled away from it. There is a desperation and futility to the clinging.
The 2000 work, “Mister Redman,” features a character named “Bob” and “Mister Redman,” who, according to the PAFA exhibition, “has been summoned to punish Bob for his indiscretions.” A curtain protrudes from the painting as the viewer glimpses the violent scene. Is this the same evil “Bob” from the “Twin Peaks” universe? Will we see a “Mister Redman” factor into future storytelling?
If you are visiting the exhibition, make sure to stop on the second floor for a parallel exhibition, “’Something Clicked in Philly’: David Lynch and His Contemporaries,” which features at least one work by Lynch as well as the work of the PAFA artistic community surrounding him. Artists in the exhibition include Morris Blackburn, Will Brown, Murray Dessner, Eugene Feldman, James Havard, Ben Kamihira, Leon Kelly, Kocot and Hatton, Rodger LaPelle, Noel Mahaffey, Virginia Maitland, Christine McKinnis, Eo Omwake, Elizabeth Osborne, Tom Palmore, Hobson Pittman, Peggy Reavey, and Bruce Samuelson. The curator for this exhibit is Althea Rockwell, curatorial assistant for the museum. There is a lovely portrait of David Lynch by Peggy Reavey, his first wife and fellow art student at PAFA. Please note that this smaller exhibition only runs through Dec. 28, 2014, which is a different end date than the "David Lynch: The Unified Field" exhibition.
The first floor of the museum features David Lynch’s initial foray into filmmaking with the installation “David Lynch: Six Men Getting Sick.” According to PAFA, Lynch once paused before a canvas he was working on, and perceived sound and movement emerging from the work. He made the connection and thought, “’Oh, a moving painting.’ And that was it.” The film is a hybrid between moving images and art because it contains a projected image with sound, but the image is projected on the sculpture of bodies protruding from the wall, creating a three-dimensional screen. Fellow PAFA student Jack Fisk cast his body to produce the sculptures of the sick men. The film is set in a dark room in the exhibit and is played on a loop. The sick men’s stomachs fill up with liquid, which eventually protrudes through their mouths. One reacts with revulsion and fascination simultaneously.
In her 2005 work, “The Uses of Cultural Studies,” British scholar Angela McRobbie explained how David Lynch’s films “exemplify postmodern thinking and also perform a kind of double take on academic postmodernism. It seems to engage directly with this body of writing, and it goes further so that there is an almost total ‘derealisation of the world of everyday life.’ This is done by fusing the cinematic with the psychoanalytical, the narrative with the anti-narrative, the aesthetic with the unconscious, the landscape of sexual desire with that of dreams of fantasy.” The unified field of David Lynch’s work plays out these themes on canvas and on film.
David Lynch reached into his subconscious mind to explore violence, sexuality, humor, home, childhood and loss. He gives the viewer no explanation of his images. Rather, his images encourage us to explore our inner selves. Once viewed, his works create a circle of experience of the subconscious. Finally, this circle of exchange and experience between the viewer and the artist are what becomes true art.
The exhibition could not have come at a better time for David Lynch fans – specifically fans of the 1990-1991 television series “Twin Peaks.” With the recent release of the “Twin Peaks” blu-ray, the publication of Brad Duke’s “Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks,” and the announcement of David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s continuation of the show after 25 years, which is set to air in 2016 on Showtime, now is an opportune moment to begin immersing yourself in the Lynchian world. If you can make the journey to Philadelphia, you will not be disappointed, my friends.
“David Lynch: The Unified Field” is on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and runs Sept. 13, 2014 through Jan. 11, 2015. The curator of the exhibit is Robert Cozzolino, and the William Penn Foundation is the presenting sponsor of this exhibition. Visit the PAFA website for more information.
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