Is David Lynch as good of a painter as he is a filmmaker? The answer is yes—and no. It depends on your take on Lynch’s polarizing aesthetic, but in The Unified Field, the psychological brute force of the exhibition is surely due to visionary artistry rather than curation. The most pressing question is not whether Lynch’s non-film work merits a show of its own, but why and how the puzzling curation of the pieces undermines the exhibition’s potential.
The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art’s hefty exhibition is divided between the Furness-Hewitt building’s three floors, counting the complementary Something Clicked in Philly: David Lynch and His Contemporaries. It’s a poetic and practical strategy that cites the diverse associations of Lynch’s work. One can compare the exhibition’s architecture to the superimposed conscious, subconscious, and unconscious, or a mythical journey from the earth to the heavens. Alternatively, perhaps the upward climb underlines the laboriousness of Lynch’s own work, or the movement of vomit through the gastrointestinal system, a Lynchian preoccupation. While visitors can choose how to proceed, the show’s division is a welcome relief to the ninety or so works on display and encourages the viewer to rest and meditate in between sections.
The Unified Field is most focused at the ground floor. Tucked into a corner, Lynch’s early opus, Six Men Getting Sick (1967) is particularly potent. Lynch first exhibited the work at the Furness-Hewitt building at PAFA, and the show does its utmost to resurrect the original presentation, projecting film onto fragmented casts of bodies. While Lynch entered PAFA as a painter, he betrayed his growing interest in the cinema with Six Men, and the combination of stop motion animation, sculpture, and sound exemplifies the young artist attempting to reconcile his initial interest in painting with cinema. Through the conceit of vomit, the work is preoccupied with the body as the recipient of the world and container of pain, expulsion, and transformation. The presence of physical artifacts powerfully underlines this theme by transubstantiating it. Inert casts are literally forced into animation via projected images, and thus forced into illness. Sirens sonically expand the affective boundaries of the piece and consume the viewer, who in effect becomes complicit in the implicitly urban gentrification of these bodies, nauseated as they begin to form a city skyline, roadway, and sewers. Concept studies accompany the titanic installation with informative, phantasmal flourish and testify to Lynch’s fine draftsmanship.
Advancing into the rest of the exhibition, the psychological and physiological anxiety evoked on the ground floor begins to dissipate. Nestled in the Richard C. von Hess Foundation Works on Paper Gallery, the adjunct Something Clicked in Philly features work from Lynch’s student days by his then classmates and mentors: James Harvard, Morris Blackburn, future wife Peggy Reavey, and others. The works evince talent and creativity, situating Lynch’s development within the expressionistic verve cultivated by Philadelphia’s young artists during the socioeconomic and cultural blight in the city at the time. Some, like Bruce Samuelson’s Untitled (1977) or Ben Kamihara’s Nude and Bentwood Chair (ca. 1970s), ritualize the body with quasi-symbolic vivisection and fragmentation, reducing the human to its reality of raw flesh. Others, like James Harvard’s The Swedish Film Editor (1966) are witty and surreal, similar to sensibilities found in Lynch’s humor. With its narrow seminar-room dimensions, the show nevertheless feels distinctly collegiate and a bit dated. At worst, a few works expose themselves as uncomfortably immature, especially compared to Six Men, and feel more obligatory than necessary. More interestingly, Something Clicked does its best in humanizing the often-puzzling Lynch by plotting out his friendships in pictures.
The show’s last third exaggerates the strengths and weaknesses of its preamble with exhilarating-but-somewhat-muddled curation. It forms the exhibition’s crux and climax, the impressive quantity, range, and scale of Lynch’s mature work sprawling across several rooms. The theme of the body’s crisis in the world is elaborated upon, while Lynch’s persistent subversion of American suburban nostalgia emerges more prominently as a motif. Lynch continues developing figurative work and abstract collaging in early two-dimensional and mixed-media works such as Man Throwing Up (1968) and Crucifixion (1974). While their subject matter is racked with incommunicable trauma, Lynch is still firmly grounded in the fine arts tradition, quoting Constructivist, Expressionist, and Surrealist influences. After his move to Los Angeles in 1971, the detailed renderings and formal compositions give way to dreamier monochromatic washes and looser forms. Most recently, Lynch has all but abandoned these techniques in his larger pieces in favor of semi-sculptural, mixed-media installations, hacking together chunks of paint, working light bulbs, and, in the case of Figure Witnessing the Orchestration of Time (1990), insects.
Roughly divided between polygonal rooms, The United Field is presented in a rigid row at eye-level. The arrangement creates a relentless visual reel akin to a zoetrope, inviting parallels to Lynch’s film work, and as one walks through the rooms, the images seem to slowly uproot themselves to invade reality. The gradual stylistic shift that develops suggests that since realizing the moody inchoateness of his early artwork in cinema, Lynch seeks a distinct aesthetic for his visual art practice. Raging in their physicality, works like Mister Redman (2000) are purposefully crude, sometimes jejune. However, the sinister, childlike imagination at play only deepens Lynch’s vision of distorted suburbia.
Here again the curation throws the exhibition off balance by eschewing straightforward chronology, jumping from 1990 to 2008 and back to 2000 in three paintings. To gain an accurate sense of Lynch’s creative development here requires a sharp memory or willingness to ricochet across the room. Perhaps this was intended to be reminiscent of the director’s love for oneiric and oblique storytelling. After setting up his artistic story on the lower floors, the overall effect is confusing and contrary to its title; the show feels disjointed. Lynch’s early movies are disappointingly crammed into one reel, screened on the first and third floor. With the lineup dominated by the 34-minute The Grandmother, catching the other much shorter films is a task, and the perfunctory monitors lessen the eerie visuals.
Curatorial hiccups aside, the work provides definitive insight into Lynch’s creative development, who has often cited his five years at PAFA, from 1965-1970, as a revelation. Lynch’s retrospective is his homecoming ceremony, a double homage to his creative crystallization in mid-century Philadelphia and to his achievements as the American surrealist of our time. In this, the exhibition is arguably a success. Every image is lit with the grit, irreverence, and melancholy that marks Philadelphia, and in return, every image honors the city.