The publication of two monographs devoted to the art of David Lynch—paintings, photographs, works on paper, installations, canvases smeared with animal corpses—suggests a new way to think about an artist too often taken for an architect of dreamscapes, a fabulist of the psychosexual bizarre. The opposite is just as true: Lynch as a supremely earthly, material artist, whose great subject is the human body in all its banality—and strangeness. The most "Lynchian" of Lynch's films are intensely corporeal: Eraserhead (1977), with its reproductive phantasmagoria; the exposed and dismantled bodies of Blue Velvet (1986); Twin Peaks (1990–91), a melodramatic labyrinth with a plastic-wrapped corpse at its heart; the doppelgängers and displacements of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). So, too, with his studio art, a largely figurative body of work that, with few exceptions, loses focus the more detached it gets from the body.
Lynch was a painter before he made movies, and it's tempting to read his turn to cinema as a means of pursuing a figurative practice against the ascendant Conceptualism and dematerialization of the late-'60s avant-garde. Dark Splendor, a handsome monograph with a silly title produced on the occasion of a 2009 retrospective at Germany's Max Ernst Museum Brühl, spends a lot of time trying to situate Lynch in relation to official art history. In his introductory essay, curator Werner Spies makes the case for Lynch as a quizzical midwestern heir to Surrealism and Dada and further tracks down any and all potential correspondences with the work of celebrated artists, some less convincing than others. (There's a white horse in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me ; Joseph Beuys once used a white horse!) Playing Lynch off Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and Giacometti does little to establish a master of contemporary cinema as more than a minor figure in contemporary art, but it's not without value in fleshing out a larger field of meaning in which to place his total achievement.
Lynch cites Francis Bacon as his favorite painter, and the influence is clear. Lynch's figures are typically shown in some form of arrested agony, dissolution, or metamorphosis and often situated in a variation on the Bacon arena. The viscous, shit-colored nude splayed over a mustard couch in the mixed-media Well . . . I Can Dream, Can't I?, 2004, oozes out from an indeterminate proscenium space, the archetypal Bacon contour. The houses, factories, and stages everywhere in Lynch connect to the interplay of figure and field in Bacon. Gilles Deleuze theorized this dynamic in a study of Bacon far more interesting than any of Bacon's actual paintings, and he gives us a valuable concept for thinking about Lynchian figuration: "The entire series of spasms in Bacon is of this type: scenes of love, of vomiting and excreting, in which the body attempts to escape from itself through one of its organs in order to rejoin the field or material structure." Just such a "spasm" occurs in Lynch's first film, Six Men Getting Sick. Made in 1966 while Lynch was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the 16-mm loop animates a collective barf against flat, zoned-off planes of space. Where Spies sees a statement of "disgust at gestural painting," a curious claim given the unabashed love of gestural effects in Lynch's artwork, we might think of this convulsion as an early attempt to think through the problem of bodies in relation to their field.
Processing Lynch through a Deleuzian machine runs the risk of stuffing unruly art into a neat theoretical box and does little to account for those tremendous enigmas and unnameable atmospheres that constitute the quintessentially Lynchian. (Though it pays to remember, as the critic J. Hoberman noted of Dune , how "Lynch is weirdest precisely when attempting to be most normal.") But it does help generate an alternative to the routine emphasis on the oneiric, surrealist, or psychoanalytic dimensions of Lynch's work, an approach long ossified into cliché that ignores the pronounced materialism of his vision. The lithographs collected in Lithos, a survey of work produced at the famed Item Éditions studio in Montparnasse, France, are voluptuously tactile, lovingly artisanal. These handcrafted images are, moreover, full of hands: handprints and handshakes, hands with objects (radios, knives, guns, abstraction), titles with hands—Rock and Hand, Hand of Dreams, both 2009.
This relation of body to texture is no less central to the films. Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive all trade in the forms and surfaces of classic Hollywood—melodrama, noir, western, The Wizard of Oz)—and all of them trace the effort people make to negotiate the (unraveling) fabric of their universe. The tenor of these movies is highly self-conscious, as are their protagonists, who exude an anxious awareness. This frisson reaches a sublime peak in the famous rehearsal scene from Mulholland Drive, where the heroine dismantles her facade of innocence, exposing to the camera a magnificent, wholly unexpected agency. She has, for the moment, mastered the code of her context, and the shock of this sudden self-possession is as violent a collapse of the narrative as the structural shenanigans of the third act. Mulholland Drive is the definitive movie about people grappling with their existence in a movie—a sustained contemplation of bodies attempting to get out of themselves.
Nothing in Lynch's studio art gets near this intensity, because the surface—scratched, smudgy, inky—is too consistent and conventional. His strongest work is precisely that which generates the strangest, most productive relationship between motif and milieu. These are the "Distorted Nudes," a corpus of photographs from 2004 based on images from a volume of period German prints. Lynch manipulates the originals in Photoshop, inventing new anatomies and orifices, severing or reconstituting appendages, adding void or blur to the settings. For all the violence done to them, the effect is never savage. These are speculative bodies, hypothetical beings. They inhabit a parallel cosmos, participate in unknowable systems; we observe them going about their business on their own inexplicable terms. What gives them such uncanny presence and contemporary juice is, paradoxically, the historical tether, a trace of decor, pose, or posture that links them to another time (1839–1939). Evidence of their digital construction is obvious, but they give off a feeling not of historical materials altered but fusions, things fully formed, vibrating in the present.
The "Distorted Nudes" together with Inland Empire bespeak the enormous energy released by Lynch's encounter with digital imaging technologies. Shot using the Sony PD-150, a consumer-grade video camera obsolete for feature filmmaking, Lynch's kaleidoscopic portrait of "a woman in trouble" was, by common consent, his most experimental feature since Eraserhead. Nearly as unanimous was the opinion that the film—or video, or epic YouTube nightmare, or whatever the hell it was—was hideously ugly. The dismay expressed by mainstream critics was inflected by an almost personal sense of betrayal, as if Lynch had provoked his own Dylan-goes-electric moment. "The usual Lynch trademarks—intense close-ups, monumental headshots, red curtains—are all here," wrote Variety with its customary pseudo-authority, "but noticeably missing are the deep, rich colors and sharp images. Instead, they're replaced by murky, shadowy DV, which may give him more freedom but robs the pic of any visual pleasure."
Visual pleasure thus defined is of a particular, narrow, and obsolete type—the sensual richness of 35-mm traditions. The tremendous beauty and intelligence of Inland Empire derive from its wild variation of surface, an encyclopedic compendium of digital weird: blotch, blur, distortion, fog, seepage, dissolution, mutability, grime. If Mulholland Drive was a movie about being in a movie, Inland Empire explodes this meta-narrative situation across the far less stable media environment of video imaging and the Internet. It makes a clean break with genre touchstones. Its ideal spectator is solitary; the movie is better suited to viewing at home on a laptop than in a cinema. It imagines a new kind of body, one we're in the process of inventing; a body distributed over networks, caught up in feedback loops, delimited by bandwidth, escaping down a multiplicity of pathways. Even by the standards of the Lynch oeuvre, the movie is brazenly circuitous, perpetually slipping through its own cracks to coagulate anew then fissure once more.
If all of this seems the opposite of embodiment, that's partly because our idea of craftsmanship remains tied to the analog. Inland Empire reaches back not just to the experimentalism of Eraserhead but to its highly wrought tactility. When it comes to moviemaking, Lynch is most avant-garde when most artisanal. Everything he makes, you might say, is a studio picture. Hand in hand with a reevaluation of the body in Lynch comes another shift. He is not a filmmaker who also makes art. He is an artist whose practice includes filmmaking.
Nathan Lee is a writer and curator based in New York.