New York

David Lynch

This eye-opening exhibition of paintings by David Lynch enriches our understanding of this man as a multifaceted artist, previously known mainly for his darkly disturbing films, such as Eraserhead, 1978, and Blue Velvet, 1986. These works reveal Lynch’s graphic ability to hone in on his own subconscious and to purge childhood fears and impressions of the world. In both film and painting, Lynch offers a compelling vision of psychological distress and of the often frustrated urge to communicate.

The paintings project a bizarre balance of melancholy, methodical process, and ironic childlike exuberance. Creamy strokes of rich brown, gray, black, and white oil paint predominate in these neatly organized, uniform-sized canvases. Yet for all the overt ordering of formal elements, the paintings themselves revolve around the difficult revelation of sublimated childhood experiences. By contrast, the smaller watercolors and chalk drawings on view here are ambiguous and visually subdued.

Although Lynch’s works are deeply affecting, and deliciously quirky art on their own terms, they do suggest parallels to his films. A basic theme in both is the underlying terror hiding beneath the surface of American normalcy. The scene in Blue Velvet in which a dog voraciously chases water from a sprinkler hose, while his master lies dying from a seizure, shows similarities with Oww God, Mom, The Dog He Bited Me, 1988. Man’s best friend crosses a threshold and becomes a child’s very real early enemy. In the painting, Lynch evokes this painful narrative with bare means—an attenuated stick figure with a smear of cranberry red for the injured child, a small squiggle of glue with a dash of red for the guilty dog. Tiny letters from an old board game add the final touch of pathos—a child’s cry in an unfeeling world.

Lynch is a sophisticated, technically adept artist. Oddly enough, his paintings are decidedly noncinematic in their look. Ghoulish, distorted, sticklike figures and simply rendered houses float atop these oppressive, atmospheric backgrounds, like remote images and thoughts trapped in the recesses of one’s mind. Lynch’s works provoke a gut-level response, touching the nerves directly without resorting to pretense or theoretical game-playing. A highlight of the show was Two Snot Nosed Boys and a Song Bird Outside My House, 1988. A golemlike child’s head, constructed from messy paint strokes, is at the work’s center, with a stream of glue running from its nose. Bands of earth-tone paint are applied in lush, physical brushstrokes. One can sense the artist’s enjoyment in completely involving himself in the artmaking process. Perhaps as revenge for a strict childhood, David Lynch the adult can finally play in the mud and love every minute of it.

Jude Schwendenwien