New York CitySperone Westwater
David Lynch: Squeaky Flies in the Mud
November 1 – December 21, 2019
Those who have followed David Lynch’s remarkable career as a filmmaker are likely aware of his equally remarkable career as an artist. From the very start, the creative impulse was sparked by his painting, then gradually through the unique pace of Lynch’s alchemical growth, he has henceforth been able to harvest other related mediums to expand his visual lexicon, from photography, sculpture, lamps, furniture, and music to the monumental undertaking of creating the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness–Based Education and World Peace (facilitating access to Transcendental Meditation as a stress-reducing method for “at-risk” populations including the homeless, US military veterans, African war refugees, and prison inmates). Like many who have encountered the enigmatic sphere of Eraserhead (1977) and Elephant Man (1980) or at the very least have been perplexed by the science fiction epic Dune (1984), which Lynch has disowned due to the loss of his artistic control and the denial of his final cut privilege, yet everyone was rather relieved and delighted when Lynch redirected his attention back inside the orbit of his sui generis vision. As the late David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Lynch’s Innocent Idealism had survived Dune. He cared less about money and production budget than about regaining control of the fantasy and toys.” It’s precisely from this clarity the Lynchian sensibility was set free. Call it “Vedic Odyssey,” “integrative vision,” “subatomic particles,” and whatever else among the describable terminologies, the release of Blue Velvet (1986), an idiosyncratic exploration of film noir and psychological horror, paved the way for Lynch’s perpetual exploration of the romantic fantasy and the profoundly moving in two road movies, one in Wild at Heart (1990), and the other in Straight Story (1999); the “dreaminess” of dreams in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) set forth the classic neo-noir Lost Highway (1997), and another unforgettable psychological thriller Mulholland Drive (2001), followed by the most experimental thriller Inland Empire (2006), and the awesome 18 episodes of Twin Peaks (Season 3), which premiered on Showtime in 2017. Many of us are also aware of Lynch’s personal synthesis of his long-time practice of Transcendental Meditation and modern physics unified field theory. In other words, while the former was based on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s creation of a specific form of silent mantra meditation, the latter refers to any attempt to unify the fundamental forces of physics between elementary particles into a singular theoretical substratum. Whatever lies deep within Lynch’s personal mediation between mind and matter, between transcending the mind to reach the unified field of matter (the unmanifestation of unity), he professes it can be universally adopted and accessible. Each practitioner undergoes a similar experience of meditation to attain bliss, pure consciousness, power of their energy, and dynamism. However, what each materializes in the creative end-result depends solely on their life aspiration. Perhaps, each of our creative journeys is inseparable from our spiritual journey. It’s as though, “we are what we think, having become what we thought,” Mark Epstein once said, “meditation is not a means of forgetting the ego; it is a method of using the ego to observe and tame its own manifestations.”
Lastly, as with other great artists whose works have survived narrow interpretations, one-dimensional readings, and endless other reductive analyses, Lynch is committed to following the mystery of his painting as a core organ of his pictorial enterprise, from which everything else within his vast domain of preferred mediums and material uses appears as essential anatomical subordinations. Whatever can be offered as a universal tool towards creative freedom through Transcendental Meditation, from which the most restless and articulate advocate who seems to intuit what belongs to the personal requires protection; reticence to explanation is one way to prolong the propensity of mystery. On the occasion of his first exhibit at Sperone Westwater David Lynch: Squeaky Flies in the Mud, which includes paintings, works on paper, watercolors, lamp sculpture, and furniture, Rail Publisher and Artistic Director Phong Bui met the artist at the gallery a day before the opening for a lengthy conversation. The following is their first effort to communicate the complexity of Lynch’s “anti-teleological spirit.”
Phong Bui (Rail): I like what Robert Cozzolino wrote in his leading catalog essay David Lynch: The Unified Field of your first major museum show at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) between September of 2014 and January of 2015, which essentially says you’re an artist who happens to make film as a part of your expression.
David Lynch: Yes, absolutely. Everything I’ve done, including my films, photography, and other things, has found its form through painting.
Rail: Since I, myself, went to school at the PCA (Philadelphia College of Art now University of the Arts) and took a watercolor class with Eileen Goodman, the spouse of Sidney Goodman, I was familiar with the figurative painting tradition in Philadelphia, including some of the painters you had studied with, for example, Elizabeth Osborne, Hobson Pittman, or Ben Kamihira for example. They in general share an interest in working from direct observation and combining it with a vigorous study of both European and American masters. Their idea was to undertake a figurative and allegorical approach with the emphasis on urban and suburban environment as subject matter, and their paintings are often painted with a dark, moody, ominous lighting.
Lynch: The dark and moody feeling was how I described Philadelphia at the time. But you’re talking about a certain movement in art history. I was never interested in art history or cinema history. I’m not really a film buff, or an art buff, or know about history books. I just go by ideas that come out, and I always say that our environment triggers ideas. People we meet, things we see and feel, and ideas can of course come from other places too. I always say Philadelphia, the city, is my biggest influence. It was very important to me that I lived in Philadelphia for those five years that I was there.
Rail: It suited your temperament as a young artist and shaped your early formation.
Lynch: Exactly, I loved it and hated it both. Almost equal. The darker side of the city has always been interesting to me because it was feeding what I was working on at that time.
Rail: Not a surprise, especially for those who’ve followed your work, they would be aware of your fascination with the subliminal, dark things lurking beneath the surface of utopian surroundings which you talked about your upbringing in Missoula, Montana, or Boise, Idaho, for example. Were you ever attracted to American Gothic fiction, especially (Nathaniel) Hawthorne, (Herman) Melville, or Edgar Allan Poe?
Lynch: Not really! Well, I only knew about Edgar Allan Poe because I lived at 13th street and Wood street for a while, and he lived on North 7th street and Green street (now Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum).
Rail: Yes, where he wrote The Tell-Tale Heart, The Gold-Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue during the several years he lived there between 1837 and 1844. We shouldn’t forget Charles Brockden Brown was the first writer of American Gothic who lived in Philadelphia, and during Poe’s time, the city was also the leading publishing, political, and cultural center of the young US.
Lynch: That makes sense. Poe, in his time, was picking up some kind of vibe in the city, whether it was the people, the buildings, the cobblestone streets, the dark mood—the feelings I got going about living there. It was very powerful. Very powerful.
Rail: Were you aware of the so-called dark vein of American Romanticism, personified by the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock?
Lynch: No, I don’t know their work.
Rail: Both Ryder and Blakelock were contemporaries of American Impressionists like Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, among others. Ryder actually lived in New York City, at Washington Square Park, yet he painted the most haunting landscape or seascape paintings. They’re of modest scale, most measure 12 × 12 inches or 20 × 24 inches. They show tremendous struggle of the co-existence between figuration and abstraction, and densely painted with muted palette.
Lynch: That sounds beautiful, I’ll try to see them.
Rail: And when Pollock was asked among the American masters, whom he most admired, Pollock said Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Lynch: Huh, that’s fantastic. Now I really want to see his paintings.
Rail: We’ll take you to see a few of them at the MET in your next trip to NYC. At any rate, I’ve been thinking about your admiration for Francis Bacon’s painting when you first encountered an exhibit of his at Marlborough-Gerson gallery in late 1968, and a year later you had an epiphany of a wind blowing from the plants you had just painted, and the plants moved. This experience reaffirmed your first experiment in film in the installation of Six Men Getting Sick a year before in 1967. I’ve just realized it makes total sense in that Bacon, too, was interested in movement, especially with (Eadweard) Muybridge’s stop motion photos of humans and animals.
Lynch: I must have picked this up unconsciously. I also loved Bacon’s treatment of the figures in such strange environments.
Rail: On somewhat a related subject: I know you were asked once about whether you knew the American vanguard filmmaker Jack Smith, and you said no.
Lynch: That’s right, no.
Rail: But when you made your second short film, The Alphabet, which was made in 1968, based off your first wife’s telling of a dream her niece had in which she was reciting the ABCs—you thought it was a nightmare…
Lynch: It’s about the fear of a child learning how to read. She was just caught one night in a fever, repeating the alphabet in her sleep, and I thought it’d make a fantastic film.
Rail: And I think your use of the alphabet from the film has resurfaced over the years and materialized into various texts, plays on words, or phrases, either suggesting a narrative or intensifying the mystery of whatever image is in your paintings, so it’s everywhere. They seem to have roots there in the film.
Lynch: Now thinking about what you’ve just said, they have roots there for sure.
Rail: I find it interesting in that two years later in 1970, there’s another remarkable member of the New York avant-garde cinema, Hollis Frampton, who made a film called Zorns Lemma, which is based on the alphabet.
Lynch: I don’t know him or the film.
Rail: It’s interesting in that my good friend, the famed art critic, Barbara Rose, wrote a landmark essay called ABC Art in 1965, which explored the diverse roots of Minimalism, and Frampton was an important participant in this dialogue. You, too, were exploring your own ABCs, but for an entirely different reason.
Lynch: Mine just came out from a dream. It wasn’t about some formal issue.
Rail: Okay, so we got that record straight. [Laughter] You have no relation to Jack Smith, nor to Hollis Frampton whatsoever… What about Jonas Mekas?
Lynch: No, I never followed much of avant-garde cinema at the time. There was a theatre called the Band Box in Germantown, Philadelphia where I did go to see some French New Wave films, and Italian Neorealist films but I was still in the world of painting, and moving paintings, that kind of thing. It was only a little bit later that I heard about the American Film Institute, and so some people told me about it, and they told me I should apply. And I just had made The Alphabet, so in order to apply you needed previous work, which would be The Alphabet, and a script for the new film you want to make. And I had ideas for a film called The Grandmother. So, I wrote that out, and I put the two things together, filled out the forms, and sent it in to the American Film Institute for an independent filmmaker’s grant. Now they gave the grants away bi-annually, and so after I submitted my entry, they announced the previous group that won. Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage were in that group. And I saw this list, and I read the bios, and I said, “there’s no way I’m gonna win.” [Laughter] And I gave up thinking about it. And I was printing engravings, and every morning I’d go out—I eventually got a car—but I was also taking the bus, and a train, to go out to Germantown, to make prints.
Rail: At Rodger LaPelle’s home?
Lynch: Yes. I remember saying goodbye to Peggy [Reavey], my wife at the time, and asked her to call if anything exciting happened. Later that day the phone rang in the studio, and Rodger said, “David, the phone call is for you,” and I picked up the phone and they told me I won the grant.
Rail: Rodger LaPelle and his wife Christine McGinnis were some of the earliest supporters of your work?
Lynch: Yeah, they were saints to me. They hired me to print at their place and paid me $25 to paint during that time when I was so poor.
Rail: You were like the LaPelle’s court painter.
Lynch: Yes, I was. [Laughter]
Rail: This group of paintings from the late ’60s to early ’70s is very compelling. Several of them were painted often with a singular hybrid image of a human figure and an animal in grayish palette, hovering near the center of the canvas against a predominantly black background. Super weird.
Lynch: Uh-huh. [Laughter]
Rail: Yeah, David, for example, Woman With Tree Branch (1968), Gardenback (1968-70) along with many drawings with similar treatment, for example, one figure with an absurdly huge nose.
Lynch: Oh, that’s based on the Nikolas Gogol story The Nose, which I did in the stables of the American Film Institute for advanced film studies just before I started Eraserhead. I used to go down to the stables which later I took over, but at the time I did that drawing it was the maid’s quarters, just empty rooms, and I sat there and I did that drawing there, which came pretty fast. The Nose was recommended to me by Frantiek “Frank” Daniel, a Czech born film director, producer, and screenwriter who was the first dean of the school, and he knew I liked Kafka, so he said I should read Gogol. So, I read The Nose which I liked very much.
Rail: That seems to make sense—from Gregor Samsa’s gigantic insect to Major Kovalyov’s monumental nose. [Laughs]
Lynch: Exactly right. I really like the drawing, and a few similar ones that I did whenever I had a bit of time in between classes. I knew I couldn’t make paintings then, which would involve setting up a studio and require a long stretch of time.
Rail: That makes perfect sense. I also notice the motif of the bed, the window, the chair; let’s say the image of an interior which kept reemerging in the different shapes and forms throughout your work, especially in the recent paintings.
Lynch: I really don’t know how they got going but I got into the Italian Renaissance idea of how to create a window frame that you can look into. All kinds of mystery can happen within that frame.
Rail: There’s one, your version of the crucifixion, made in 1973, which reminds me very much of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516), then a few others, for example, Third Ray (1974) or Infusing Being (1974), which evokes similar religious or spiritual feeling. Is it fair to correlate those works to your new self-discovery through TM (Transcendental Meditation), which you began the twice-a-day practice in July 1973?
Lynch: Yeah, it very well could be. It’s true, looking at them now, they do have that feeling.
Rail: In the Third Ray, a triptych is constructed as a hybrid of an altar and a theatrical stage, which depicts a tree and the surrounding landscape. Very strange.
Lynch: Nature played a big part in those days. Also, the idea of inside and outside was interesting to me.
Rail: Which was quite evident in your second film The Grandmother.
Lynch: True. Also, even though I never really got into theater I love the idea of the stage. I heard in an interview just this morning about the proscenium arch being so beautiful and important because it has curtains that open and you go into the space behind it, and it’s framed so you’re not disturbed by anything outside of this space. It tells you what’s happening within this frame and that to me is very important to my work. I just like the way most of my paintings are framed so you go into this particular realm.
Rail: Or a dream.
Lynch: Yes, a dream.
Rail: Or being dropped into the middle of someone else’s dream.
Lynch: Okay. Again, all of those drawings we made during Eraserhead in what we called the food room.
Rail: They were made on whatever casual, scrap pieces of paper that you could find available around you.
Lynch: Yes, then I soon began making lots of drawings on matchboxes. I was smoking at the time.
Rail: Which you still do now [Laughs] and love drinking coffee.
Lynch: Yes, they were made a year or two before Bic lighters were made available in 1973. What you see in the catalog are only the ones that were saved but I did hundreds of them. I would just draw on them while I was waiting for the lighting crew to set up the light in the film set, sometime in the middle of the night. Later I used to do drawings on Post-its, which later were made into lithographs at Item Éditions printing studio in Paris. It was Hervé Chandes from the Cartier Foundation who introduced me to Patrice Forest.
Rail: Who I just met at your show. Anyway, this series of prints, referred to as “The Paris Suite” (2007), seems very abstract, flat, and graphic in red and black.
Lynch: They were done on aluminum plates. I just tried to make the prints look like those Post-it drawings. And then Patrice gave me the stones, which were perfect to work with black and white. I’ve done about, they say, 270 lithos on stone after those ink plates. The process is a bit like photography. You snap a picture with film, celluloid, and then it’s sent to the laboratory to get developed and made into a print. In lithography you have a similar process and it’s a very organic, fantastic medium. The final print is so special because it has gone through these different steps and you get to know your medium and what the steps make it look like and ideas start flowing for that medium and it’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
Rail: So, as you’re exploring the tonal range of black and white in lithography, as well as texture, things are getting more three dimensional.
Lynch: Yes, that was a big step. I loved, loved, loved, loved, loved, loved it. Some elements like a head, hand, leg or whatever gets made in clay, and then I would cast them, fix them on with wire, glue them. I also use all different types of materials, all different types of paint. So, it’s like the materials that you choose to work with, for whatever reason, are dictated by the ideas that want to be a certain way.
Rail: Like the painting Bob Loves Sally Until She is Blue in the Face (2000) which also includes the title painted on the top and the curtain motif on the right.
Rail: What about the issue of time? Does it matter if one or more paintings get painted at certain times then left unfinished for a while?
Lynch: Whenever I get a chance to start painting and slowly get back into it, then I’m in it and then maybe something else comes up and I have to leave it. So those things I did while I was in it during that period, they kind of hang together. Then the next time I get a chance to go back in it’s different. Somehow, I moved away from that, even though I might think I’m still there once I start painting, I say, “No that’s not what I want to do now, I want to do something else.” It can be frustrating at times, but I’m getting used to this way of working. I mean I’ve been making this work for a long time.
Rail: Let me ask you about an older painting, Rock With Seven Eyes (1996), which seems quite different than the others? It looms right in the middle of the canvas and had a huge rock with seven eyes. How did the image come to you?
Lynch: I have no idea, I don’t really know where it came from, but there is a kind of magic to each number, zero, one through ten. In Vedic science, everything comes from zero, everything. Everything comes from zero, which means “void” or “empty.” It’s so beautiful to think about. But seven is a cosmic number, which I like, and this rock with seven eyes had a meaning to me, and so that’s what I did.
Rail: What about the name Bob? The subject and title of a group of paintings you made in 2000, all entitled and named after Bob—Bob Finds Himself in A World For Which He Has No Understanding, Bob Burns Tree, Bob’s Dream, etc.!
Lynch: I always say I like the name Bob, and it’s not one particular person, it could be many, many different people, who just happen to have that name. But it just happened to be that—they were done in one summer, and I got on a roll, with the Bob series, I got on a roll, and one of them is in the show which we talked about earlier.
Rail: They’re quite different than the paintings of the late ’80s, which are relatively flat, very mysterious, and predominantly in gray and black tones. These have a greater spatial depth and are painted with a beautiful tone of yellow ochre.
Lynch: Ochre, I love, love yellow ochre.
Rail: Do you tend to work in series?
Lynch: Apparently, I do. What happens is, since I do so many different things, when I’m in the world of painting and I’m on a roll—say a similar thing keeps coming out of a series, they’re similarities between them, so a series comes and for one reason or another I have to do something else, and when I come back later I’ve lost whatever I was tuning into, and I have a long time before I get back into the next thing. You have to start some place, but you realize you’re kind of on the surface and it’s not working out, and it takes a while to fall deeper and deeper in and then you catch something and you’re on another series, and as long as you’re in that it keeps flowing out. You can theoretically burn that out and get into something else. One thing does sometimes lead to another, but it takes a while, maybe weeks, to get into painting if you’ve been away from it for a while. And the best thing is just to get going on anything and not be afraid. Just keep working it some way and maybe an idea will come in the doing. And then you know you’re ok.
Rail: What about the group of few works that belong to the Fondation Cartier collection? For example, there’re two paintings, one called Well, I Can dream, Can’t I? and the other Do you want to know what I really, really think? both painted in 2003. They seem to, on the one hand, intensify the flatness of the background like the wall and the floor of some specific interiors. On the other hand, there are three-dimensional components of the figure, also a collage element, and so on.
Lynch: I like combining these different elements. I would find images in photoshop for the background, and then print them out and glue them for the background. As you said, the figures tend to accumulate more things on them. I just like the contrast. I also go into phases where I fall in love with different things, sometimes it’s a matter of the materials I use. Like I’d fallen in love with cardboard as a surface to paint on.
Rail: I like the paintings I Burn Pinecone and Throw In Your House and Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House, both also painted in 2009, and painted on three panels.
Lynch: Well, there’s a magic to the number three.
Rail: Like the trinity, or the beginning, middle, and end. Or growth, among other things.
Lynch: The idea of triptychs is magical, and so each panel is somewhat different in my case. And they don’t have to tell the straight story.
Rail: None of your films do either. That’s the least we think about. [Laughs] In any case, as you’d mentioned how you prefer cardboard as a surface to paint on, I notice several paintings in this exhibit, for example, Billy (and His Friends) Did Find Sally in the Tree (2018), Billy Sings the Tune for the Death Row Shuffle (2018), and Dialogue During a Picnic (2014/17)— they’re painted on paper, perhaps mounted on either stretched canvas or wood panel.
Lynch: Yes, I like how the paint and other materials absorb and sit on the surface. If you look closely, the white background is the whiteness of the paper left unpainted.
Rail: Yes, I notice. I also notice the Mickey Mouse head-like form in full frontal that flows in the middle of the upper space in Billy Sings the Tune for the Death Row Shuffle is affixed in three-quarter view on top of the tree in Billy (and His Friends) Did Find Sally in the Tree.
Rail: Would you agree the images in these recent paintings are less static than those in the past? The same can be said of the sculptures, for example, Lamp (2019) rather than the older one like Douglas Fir Top Lamp #1 (2002)?
Lynch: I hadn’t thought about it, but maybe a little bit.
Rail: What’s the function of the painted walls in gray and yellow?
Lynch: To make a space.
Rail: When did the element of the lightbulb appear as part of the painting or part of the lamp?
Lynch: I don’t know when the first lightbulb painting came about. I always liked Christmas tree bulbs, and I love electricity, making lamps.
Rail: And the light is rather dim, never too bright.
Lynch: That’s right. It never has to because it doesn’t need to.
Rail: It balances the mystery when it’s dim light. Is your desire to make painting more urgent than previously?
Lynch: The desire was always the same. The time and the place to do it is not always available. I’ve got a painting studio that I can go to, but there’s restrictions because basically my painting studio is partly inside, but it’s not heated. So, if the weather is bad, I can’t work. In southern California there are many days that are very good, and I rely on the sunlight. I rely on the outside air and breeze because a lot of times I’m working with toxic materials so it works out to have this outside painting studio.
Rail: Do you have an assistant?
Lynch: I have an assistant who orders materials for me, but I prefer being alone, working alone in my studio.
Rail: Let’s switch the subject to well-being. I had the pleasure of talking to your sister, Martha, the other night about how you discovered TM through her at point in June of 1973, and only after two weeks of practice, your fear, depression, sorrow, and anger just kind of dissolved. Your brief story of visiting a psychiatrist ended so abruptly.
Lynch: Yes, because when I went to the psychiatrist, before I even sat down, after I shook his hand, I said, “I have to ask you. Could this affect my creativity?” and he says, “well, David, I have to be honest. It could.” So, I shook his hand again, and then left, and never went back.
Rail: There’s a story of Philip Guston who suffered his first heart attack and was checked into a hospital in Kingston, near Woodstock where his wife and painter Musa McKim lived. A psychiatrist was sent to check on his mental state, and he asked whether Guston would tell him about his childhood upbringing, among other things relating to his life’s story. Guston said, “Do you know the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke?” The psychiatrist said, “no, I don’t.” Guston followed, “Rilke said, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.” Each person who struggles needs a specific resolution. As in your case, Transcendental Meditation has been very useful for your work, which prompted you to create the David Lynch Foundation in 2005 to advocate for TM and world peace. I’ve watched the documentary Meditation, Creativity, Peace (2012) of your 16-country tour to spread the word. I mean that’s a titanic investment of energy and time. How do you find time to do that because you also want to be alone, in solitude in your studio making art. So how do you manage your time and how does that benefit you as an artist?
Lynch: This is a really important question. And the answer is that I have less and less and less time to myself. And this is a horrible thing. And I don’t know what happens, but there are things I want to support, like TM, because I know that every human being has a treasury within, and this technique will connect them to the treasury and they’ll get the benefits of the treasury and it will change their life for the good. So, I have a built-in wish to let the people know about this, TM, but it takes time away from the work. There’re many interruptions in life, too many. So, the thing I need to figure out is how to create space where I have time to daydream and catch ideas. It just gets less and less.
Rail: Last question David: once you got involved with kinetics and you discovered film as a more appropriate medium for the movement of visual art than painting. But then film making, in your view, largely covers the language of art rather than of cinema, but now, after 50 years of being a filmmaker, does the visual language of cinema inform your approach to painting?
Lynch: Sometimes one thing feeds another. The same ideas can exist in painting and also exist in a different way in cinema. Certain kinds of thinking, and certain kinds of ideas, they just come out different depending on the medium. And I always say there’s trillions of ideas out there for us, but we’re all different on the surface. So Phong will fall in love with certain kinds of ideas, and David will fall in love with a different set of ideas. And that’s just the way it is. We all have our likes and dislikes, they’re different. It’s like a butterfly net. You get a butterfly net. You swing it around, and to catch some butterflies as ideas, they’ll be some you catch but you won’t like them so you let them go. Then you swing it around, you catch a bunch, and you find one of them to which you say “oh man! That is an idea for me” and then you’re so lucky. You save that. And as I always say it might just be a fragment of a film, or just some small information to get you going on a painting, but it’s something you love. The same thing with cinema ideas, first I fall in love with the idea itself, and then I fall in love with the way cinema can manifest that idea. So, it seems like an idea that pushes the cinema and the idea to be something new. So that’s the one you fall in love with. Romance is a big deal.