Dark Enlightenment

An Interview with David Lynch

David Lynch, a painting student in 1967 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, was working on an all-black painting of a night garden when he sensed that a wind, mysteriously generated from within the canvas, stirred the leaves he had just rendered. The direction this apprehension would suggest to him is now history: David Lynch the painter became David Lynch the filmmaker. But like all stories, this narrative is not so tidily packaged. The truth is, Lynch never stopped painting and drawing, and he has since added still photography and music to the art forms that compel his interest. But in his varied production as an artist, he has painted for a longer period of time than he has done anything else. He admits that finding his voice as a painter has been “a total struggle. For me, the grand experiment has been to keep chasing the thing I haven’t found.”

What he has found is a way of presenting what he calls humanity’s “deep darkness” in unique and unmistakably Lynchian ways. The startling intensities of his films, their sense of engaging us in a lived-in, visceral experience, are undeniable. His film history is a nightmare from which we want to awaken, then we’re not so sure, and we change our minds. His work has about it a distinct quality of menace and danger, while at the same time it can be comic and endearingly preposterous.

David Lynch, I Was a Teenage Insect 2018, mixed media painting, 66 x 66 inches. Images courtesy the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles.

There is something inexplicably innocent about Lynch’s approach to art making. He has said the mind “is a big beautiful place, but it is also pitch-dark.” His various art practices move in the direction of that beautiful pitch-darkness. He makes what his imagination wants to see, and the nature and tone of that making seem unaffected by any sense of recognized transgression. When asked whether his motivation matters in assigning meaning to a work, he is adamant in his denial. “Not one little bit. I always say in cinema that I need to know what it means to me, but I know full well that there are millions of interpretations for the work.”

His films and paintings, then, are not him; they are merely made by him. It would be incorrect to assume that they are also mirrorly made. They contain ideas, attitudes and characters, but they are not reflections or traces of his own psychological trauma. “Things end up in painting or in cinema because they’re in the world,” he says by way of explanation, “but the artist doesn’t have to suffer to show suffering.” What is no less startling than the darkness of his films is the lightness of his world view, a perspective he attributes to his 45-year-long involvement with mantric Transcendental Meditation. It is a surprise to discover that in conversation he is completely unlike his films and paintings. He is a pure example of an unfettered imagination.

Sally Floats Out, 2018, mixed media painting, 31 xx 27 inches.

During the interview I asked him about an oil and mixed media painting called Bob Loves Sally Until She Is Blue in the Face from 2000. Written on the roughed-up surface of the canvas are the words “Oh yes,” the kind of rote encouragement that turns up in every porn film. But Bob is out of place; he seems to be a character imported from a shunga central casting studio. I read the painting in the same way I looked at a lithograph like I Hold You Tight, 2009, where a man’s long arms end in fingers that seem to be strangling his naked girlfriend more than romancing her; or in Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House, 2009, where Pete holds a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. It’s a visitation devoutly to be avoided.

I asked Lynch whether Bob and Sally’s amorous encounter was one of his Janus works, an image that looks simultaneously in opposite directions. Being made love to until you’re blue in the face could be about extreme passion or as easily describe the effect of murderous violence. The work could be seen as a kind of comic snuff painting. David seemed surprised at my question and his response spoke to a guileless phenomenology. “See, there’s that beholder again,” he said. “It’s just what you see.”

The following telephone interview was conducted on June 28, 2018, in Los Angeles. David Lynch’s one-person exhibition will run at Kayne Griffin Corcoran in Los Angeles from September 7 to November 11, 2018; and a major survey show of his work in all media, called “Someone is in my House,” will be on exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht from November 30, 2018, to April 28, 2019.

Installation view, “David Lynch: Naming,” 2013, Kayne Griffin Corcoran.

Border Crossings: The story about the moving painting is well known and has a Paul on the Road to Damascus conversion quality about it. Is there an equivalent story about your devotion to painting, which, in some ways, you’ve stayed with longer than filmmaking?

David Lynch: There is. I was always drawing when I was little and did some painting and loved it, but I never thought of it as something an adult would do. In my eighth grade our family moved to Virginia and I started high school there. I was over at my girlfriend’s house one evening and I went outside into her front yard. Some people had come over and one of them was named Toby Keeler. He went to a private school, so I was meeting him for the first time, and we got talking and he told me his father was a painter. At first I thought he was a house painter, but he said, “No, no, a fine art painter.” And a bomb went off in my brain. It was like I was one way before he said that and I was completely different after he said it. I just thought, that’s what I want to do. All I wanted was to be a painter. And it went like that. It led quite quickly to this thing of dedicating my life to painting and the art life. It was the most freeing thing—you smoke cigarettes, you drink coffee and you paint.

That’s where Robert Henri’s book The Art Spirit comes in?

Yes. You get deeper and deeper and deeper into it; you find your way and your own voice. It has been a total struggle. So many painters find a way, but for me the grand experiment has been to keep chasing the thing I haven’t found. It has to do with organic phenomena, with paint and sculpture flowing together and with ideas in that world. But this world of painting is the best. It’s fantastic, and that talk many years ago in the front yard opened the door. I knew it once Toby said it.

The first drawing reproduced in the large Steidl book of works on paper is a written piece that says, “I love to draw and I’ve been drawing off and on since I was real little.” You reverse the “d” on “drawing” and then sign it “David” the way a child would.

Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface, 2008–09, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 120 inches

Yes, this childlike thing is one of the keys, this freedom in not having a bunch of intellectual stuff blocking the flow. I like crude, childlike, organic things. Nature plays a part, and it’s hard to say in words, but it’s a feeling that involves paint and textures and juxtaposition of shapes. It’s not intellectual and it involves bad painting and bad mistakes, which are so beautiful once you get into them. We have so many uptight things in us that it’s really important to break it all down and get into that fantastic, childlike world.

Watching you making a painting in The Art Life, the 2017 documentary, is fascinating because what’s evident is your process in trying things out to see if they work. It’s almost as if you construct the painting more than you paint it. You put it together.

A lot of it is that way, and then I have to be able to suddenly destroy something to find that next thing. A lot of times out of destruction you find something that is really organic and beautiful.

At one point you’re trying to put a word up in the upper left corner of a canvas and you finally say “motherfucker” because you can’t get the drill to make the hole you want. It looks as if you’re not as good a carpenter as I know you are, because you can build everything from sheds to houses.

Well, that’s the thing. I love carpentry and I so respect great carpenters. But in the world of painting, bad carpentry is what’s more pleasing.

I’m impressed by how many art forms you work with. How do you know which one—from film to painting to photography to lithography—is the best vehicle for the idea or the image that you want to get across?

Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House, 2009, mixed media on cardboard, 82 x 130 inches.

That’s a good question. I think the idea tells you that. I have this theory that every medium talks to you. You have a dialogue and you understand it by getting to know it. So with lithography you do this and this and this and it looks like that. You get the hang of it; you get the dialogue going, you know what it’s going to do. It’s a lithography way to realize those ideas. So there are ideas for lithography, there are ideas for painting, for cinema, there are ideas for furniture. These ideas tell you which medium to choose and what to do once you’ve made that choice.

When talking about Mulholland Drive, you said that you don’t set out to do a certain thing but that the ideas tell you what the film’s going to be. I assume something similar happens in painting— the act of painting is to follow what the idea behind the painting is telling you.

In a film all these things happen mostly in the script form. It’s not like you just pour it out. It’s a lot of action and reaction to get it to feel correct in the script form. And if it feels correct there, that’s your guide for filming. In painting I always say you just need an idea to get you out of the chair. Then it’s a process of action and reaction; you do what you thought the idea was telling you and you can like it or not, but it gives you another idea. It’s always a process of acting and reacting until the thing is finished.

Writers will say that at a certain point in writing a novel, a character will take over the story. They’re almost not in control anymore. Does that also happen when you’re making a painting, when the process is taking over rather than your directing it?

It’s not that the process is taking over; the ideas are taking over—always the ideas are guiding the boat. I say we don’t do anything without an idea. It comes to a point where you say, “Oh my goodness, this is it,” where the idea is so strong that you just complete it.

Have you deliberately kept your visual art practice separate from your filmmaking activity? Have you been careful to keep them discrete?

Absolutely. All the time I was painting, there was this attitude that Sunday painters are hobby painting. It was so much bullshit. I always think of painting and I have always painted in between films. But I was known for filmmaking and you’re not supposed to be doing other things. Now, that’s all changed and people are into different media. They always were but now you’re given permission to do them. It’s a better world.

Do you have a sense that your various art practices have been cross-generative? Does one feed the other?

Woman’s Dream, 2013, oil and mixed media on canvas, 71 x 71 inches.

Sometimes, but it’s pretty separate. We all have our likes and dislikes. There are millions of ideas out there and you’re going to fall in love with certain ones and someone else will fall in love with other ones. We’re looking for those ideas that we can fall in love with, and some of them are cinema ideas and some of them are painting ideas.

I can see evidence of your admiration for Francis Bacon and the way that certain figures get distorted in Lost Highway, and in some of your lithographs the figures in bed have a Baconish quality.

I love Bacon. He’s a huge influence and his distortion of the human figure is so important. I like childlike distortion as well, which I call “bad painting.” It’s like the Blues. It seems really simple but in its simplicity it’s hard to get that true feel. There’s a certain way that childlike things get distorted. It’s really, really difficult to get it to feel right but it is possible.

One of the things that struck me about a lot of your paintings is they imply a simple narrative. A man, a woman, an insect or a dog will interact with one another doing simple things, like an insect bites a woman.

Yes. I did a series of photographs called “Small Stories.” Bacon said he hated stories; he didn’t want any story, but I like a story in the painting and I like the words to go with the painting. I like the way words give it the texture of letters.

One of the compelling and explosive things about your work is the way you use text and letters. Was that with you from the beginning?

Not in the beginning. The first thing was more three-dimensional stuff. In the ’60s I would glue things onto the painting and then in the ’80s I started rubber-stamping little letters onto artist’s paper and cutting them out. They reminded me of little teeth and I would put them on to the edge of the painting and into the title.

So the words are written; they’re not found.

No. I stamp them. I made many, many As, many Bs, and then I’d use them to perform the words.

Your language fragments often carry a story that precedes and also anticipates what could develop out of the scenario we’re looking at, like in Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House (2009), Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface (2008–09) or I Burn Pinecone and Throw in Your House (2009). There are such rich implications in the things these characters say. Is there a built-in narrative in these paintings that takes us beyond and outside the frame of our looking?

I always say every viewer who goes up to a painting creates a circle; the painting goes into the person and they react in a certain way, depending on how they are because on the surface we’re all different, and then it goes back into the painting. They get this dialogue going and the viewer walks away with a certain thing and the next person might walk away with another thing. It’s so beautiful how that thing can talk to us.

Is the painting telling you something specific that might be different from the way that I would view any particular painting? Does your motivation in making the work matter?

Not one little bit. I always say in cinema that I need to know what it means to me, but I know full well that there are millions of interpretations for the work. And every interpretation, every person’s take, is valid. At a screening in a big theatre filled with people, all the frames of the film are exactly the same, the film is the same length, the sound is the same, but everybody’s going to get something a little bit different. And the more abstract the film is, the more differences that are going to pop out. Then when the next audience comes in, it could be a whole different feeling, depending on the people there. It’s always the person and the work, and you just don’t know what goes on in people’s heads and hearts when they see it.

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Volume 37, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #147, published August 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.