Can Band-Aids be beautiful? Yes, those uncannily flesh-colored, rubbery, sticky and potentially slimy strips that cover any number of sores, scratches, abrasions and ruptures. When singular, Band-Aids are startling, but bunched together, they coagulate into a congealed mass, yellowing with slough, dead skin, sweat, and scabs. Physically repulsive, tactically terrible, sure. But, aren’t they just a little bit gorgeous too in their tangibly organic, yet mass-produced form? It’s enough to make me weep, both from my eyes and my wounds.
Certainly David Lynch understands the hidden magic inherent in the nasty materiality of Band-Aids as seen in his paintings such as Billy (and his friends) Did Find Sally In The Tree on view in his current exhibition Squeaky Flies In The Mud at Sperone Westwater. This painting represents a series of strange, distorted figures interacting through an ambiguous yet potentially rural or suburban environment, if the picket fence and modest house are any indication. Presumably, Billy, with a notable set of fake chompers, runs toward the tree where Sally either hangs or sits red-faced screaming. Under what appears to be a cover of plastic, Lynch embedded, within the tree’s trunk, which is painted a range of scatological browns, a crumpled, jumbled, tangled gathering of Band-Aids, which look as if they got caught and collected at the bottom of a pool drain. Incredibly, the physicality of the Band-Aids was the most memorable–and distressing–part of the painting for me, not poor Sally swinging from the tree.
And this is not the only painting in the show that features these materials sourced from the drug store. While many might be driven to focus on the bizarre, impenetrable narratives portrayed within Lynch’s visual artwork, like the disturbingly sexual Bob Loves Sally Until She Is Blue In The Face or the hovering Mickey Mouse specter in Billy Sings The Tune For The Death Row Shuffle, I’m more interested in the specific, at once alluring and repellant textures Lynch constructs through his chosen materials. Yes, David Lynch has inspired Filthy Dreams to go formalist for once, but only if that formalism includes fake teeth and dirty roses.
With a title that even recalls a deeply unsettling texture, Squeaky Flies in the Mud spans two floors of Sperone Westwater. In addition to Lynch’s aforementioned paintings, which are often three-dimensional with limbs reaching out of the picture plane, the exhibition also includes a selection of drawings by the filmmaker, showing how certain themes within his work have traversed paper, canvas and screen. This includes a peculiar obsession with electricity, an enduring fascination with domestic disruption (“Who is outside my house? My dog is running away. They come in thru my TV. Where is my dog?” reads one scrawled drawing), and of course, Bob, whose name appears throughout the exhibition.
The show also features some bizarrely idiosyncratic furniture and lamps that appear as if Crate and Barrel began accepting robo tripping designers. Lynch has become more fascinated with furniture design recently, which is responsible for one of my favorite Lynch interview moments around the release of his masterpiece Twin Peaks: The Return. Rather than immediately addressing his 18-hour film, Lynch regaled reporters in extreme detail about a desk he designed. As he told the Hartford Courant, “It’s quite a table. It’s big enough to incorporate two remote controls, a pair of glasses, some pens, a box of Kleenex, a wine bottle holder, cigarettes, a lighter, a place for treats and a switch for turning on a light on top of the table.” The furniture on view at Sperone Westwater seems in line with this same woodsy, utilitarian drive.
Awkwardly bent, twisted, curved, and cut with odd geometric shapes, these lamps are strangely conservative and almost sweet when juxtaposed with the seething unease and violence contained within the paintings nearby. Yet, in addition to their eerie jellyfish-like shapes, they recall the many lamps that have transformed into essential static characters within Lynch’s films, from the flickering red lamp in Inland Empire to the singular dim light illuminating the darkness within Fred and Renee Madison’s house in Lost Highway. And of course, most of this furniture is constructed out of, you guessed it, Douglas fir. Douglas fir…
Now, despite the respect he receives as a filmmaker, Lynch has to jump through quite a few hoops in order to have his visual art given the respect it’s entitled to. Part of this is due to his fame, which renders his work slotted, unfairly in my humble opinion, to the debased, unseemly realm of celebrity art. Certainly some art rags like Art News haven’t exactly helped things by covering Lynch’s exhibition after-party dinner with attendees like the Olsen twins rather than the show itself as if it was the Page Six of the art world. At least Page Six would be captivating enough without having to give taxingly and painfully mundane descriptions of the dinner as “nice and convivial.” Okay, tell me when it descends into acrimonious chaos please! That’s the dinner I want to attend. Written by Andy Battaglia, the article begins: “What was conversation like between David Lynch and Agnes Gund? What did Isabella Rossellini choose for her first course from a menu offering carpaccio di manzo or winter squash crostini? What kind of idle mental music—the kind one conjures silently when biding one’s time—might be drifting through the head of Angelo Badalamenti?” Ick! How gauche. Even publications owned by companies (Penske Media) heavily funded by an avalanche of Saudi bone saw money can be classless!
But, despite the efforts of gossipy click-seekers, Lynch’s artistic prowess extends far beyond his Hollywood stint. Not only just in the mere quality of his work, which far surpasses the Alice Neel rip-offs by a legacy Girls actress being hocked at a nearby Downtown gallery or even, Jim Carrey’s eye roll-inducing anti-Trump “activist” art. Unlike these two, Lynch isn’t one of those public figure newcomers that recently discovered art. Lynch has been living the art life for decades, beginning his career as a painter before transitioning into film. In fact, his first film was an experiment in moving painting, an abject repetitious spewing made in 1967 entitled Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times).
While made over fifty years earlier, the upchucking repulsion depicted in Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) relates to the corporeal horror imbedded in the materials in his paintings featured in Squeaky Flies in the Mud. Watching the six male faces vomit waterfalls of paint to wailing sirens, the thick consistency of the paint throughout the works in Sperone Westwater could be the resulting aftermath of that film. Clearly applied frequently with his hands, Lynch’s paint is chunky, as if riddled with barely digested food that was then splattered all over a painting. Nauseating.
This isn’t the only resonance that the exhibition has with Lynch’s previous work, both on screen and on canvas. To be honest, I have trouble discerning Lynch’s more recent visual artwork from his older works. Themes and imagery reappear throughout the years. For example, the squished and smooshed howling heads poking out from Billy in Billy (and his friends) Did Find Sally In The Tree resemble the head in Lynch’s photograph Clay Head with Turkey, Cheese and Ants from 1991, which is perhaps best known as the cover of torch icon and Roadhouse chanteuse Julee Cruise’s 1993 album The Voice of Love. The work is also closely connected to the surreal imagery that appears in Lynch’s films and television. The ovalesque suffocating blue head in Bob Loves Sally Until She’s Blue In The Face, in its unique shape, recalls the oblong head of the horrifying baby in Eraserhead. Witnessing these connections only further cements Lynch as the sole creator of an immersive, wholly singular visual world, one that is challenging, sometimes scary, always inspirational, and fully his own.
Now, the one critique of celebrity art that does land with Lynch’s visual art is that if he wasn’t already deemed an “important” filmmaker, his art would very likely not be on view in such a chi-chi-poo-poo high-end gallery. And not because it’s not worthy of celebration, but because its content and form is so deranged that any commercially-driven gallery in 2019 would likely not show anything quite so alarming. In 2019, galleries gravitate toward portraiture, a range of abstraction, formalist photography, and other fairly palatable, viewer-friendly disciplines. While social critique appears in many of these mediums, often related to identity politics, it usually translates its critique theoretically rather than formally. At the very least, most shows on view, with a few exceptions such as Doreen Garner’s fleshy creations recently shown at JTT, don’t revel in nasty materiality quite like Lynch.
“I love textures,” Lynch tells Artsy’s Alina Cohen. “I love organic phenomena. I like the ins and the outs and the flat. All of it. That’s where it’s at right now. It just has to be that way. I like working with all kinds of materials. Each thing does a certain thing. When you put them together, it gets magical to me.” In his films like Inland Empire, the dreamlike imagery, though smoothed-out by the slickness of the screen, avoids and eschews narrative for a wave-like onslaught of apparently random imagery that washes over viewers. The viewing experience of Lynch’s visual art is, in many ways, similar. Forget narrative; revel in the textures–the gauze wrapped around numerous painted figures as if covered in decay, the jagged twig sticking out from a painting like a leg, and yes, the Band-Aids.
With their brown and beige color scheme, many of Lynch’s paintings look as if they were smeared with mud or more abjectly, shit. This is sometimes literally feces as in Ricky Finds Out He Has Shit For Brains, which includes a painted turd (Art for the filthiest people alive). In the gargantuan Childhood Painting #1, Lynch constructs a childlike rural farm ideal filled with naïve little sheep, stiff stick figure-like wheat fields, and a cozy home with a red roof. Rather than a healthy green pastoral or an airy field like an Andrew Wyeth painting, Lynch’s Childhood Painting #1 appears as if it was rendered in thick gobs of mud. But, this texture and color scheme doesn’t gesture to some inner Americana darkness or a critique of its vacuity. Instead, you get the sense that Lynch finds this earthy tactility utterly beautiful. It also recalls one of his first memories, as explored in his autobiography Room to Dream. As Lynch remembers, “We moved to Sandpoint, Idaho, right after I was born, and the only thing I remember about Sandpoint is sitting in this mud puddle with little Dicky Smith. It was like a hole under a tree they filled with water from the hose, and I remember squeezing mud in that puddle and it was heaven.” It’s no mistake that Idaho also appears in the show with Red Idaho with Seed Pod, which is exactly as the title describes. But, isn’t Lynch right? Isn’t this muddy Americana nostalgia also heaven?
But, this romantic rural America isn’t the only sloppy mess in the exhibition. One of the most memorable use of materials is the roses embedded within the painting Bob Loves Sally Until She Is Blue In The Face. Beyond the violent romanticism with the scrawled sexual exclamations, “Oh yeah! OH YES!” near the crude bed and the potential reference to Twin Peaks’ otherworldly rapist/killer Bob, perhaps the most disturbing part of the painting is the mud-like paint splattered on the roses, which make them look as if they’re rotting or have been partially digested and barfed back up onto the work. With this kind of deterioration and decline of the flowers, who says romance is dead?
In the hands of a lesser artist, Lynch would be gunning for shock value with his use of these garish, grotesque and repulsive materials. Not that there’s anything wrong with shock value (clearly, it’s one of the tenants of bad taste we promote around here), but it’s also not unique. Most artists who use abject materiality and textures in their work strive for a kind of finger-in-the-eye to the chic, slick collector-friendly art often shown in galleries like Sperone Westwater. But, that type of abject subversion is just not all that interesting or effective. I mean, in 2019, with Trump as president, what is shocking anymore? Nothing. And any transgressive gesture in a gallery is rendered moot when entered into the far more grotesque realm of the consumerist art market.
Rather than an attempt to make viewers physically recoil like Matthew Barney’s exhaustive shit film River of Fundament, or even a decadent slog through urban drug-fueled detritus like Dash Snow’s hamster nests, Lynch finds true beauty in the ugliness. Just like the lurid underbelly within middle American suburbia or the Hollywood dream sheen, Lynch’s paintings too find inspiration within the hideousness of ruin. They are the ants covering a disembodied ear within an idyllic field, if you will.
How do I know Lynch loves these disgusting organic forms? Just recall his declaration of his adoration of moss in his interview with Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch: “I like moss a lot, you know. It’s very slow, but it’s so beautifully organic. It looks like green meat and it’s pretty beautiful.” Green meat. Like the beautiful green meat qualities of moss, Lynch finds the beauty within his own paintings, not caring that they might look deeply hideous to anyone else. He’s interested in the decay and in the rot, not merely as a social critique, but as an aesthetic. And the fact that he’s not seeking to unnerve the unwitting viewer makes the paintings truly challenging and even more frightening as he implores you to love these textures too. It’s a visceral viewing experience, one that leaves you grasping for the tube of ointment slammed onto Lynch’s bodily horror Ointment as if surrounded by all the corporeal materials, wet, slimy, thick, and muddy, you might just develop a scratchy, uncomfortable rough rash too.