Auteur David Lynch's ‘Lynchean’ visual language on display in Paris

written by Ashley Eldridge-Ford in Paris

What a wonderful weekend in Paris I have had! Taking an extended weekend break from London to attend the vernissage of David Lynch’s exhibition, The Air is On Fire, at the Fondation Cartier last Thursday and his performance at the Fondation Cartier’s Soirée Nomade on Friday evening. The exhibition, over two floors at the Fondation Cartier, is comprised of paintings, film, photographs and two installations. The five hundred sketches, doodles and drawings, made over the last thirty odd years on scraps of paper, post-it notes, lined note-paper, hotel stationary and matchbooks, are in one space on the first floor of the square glass Jean Nouvel building situated on the boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. These records of a mind and hand constantly at work allow one the flirtation of imagining Lynch sitting in an hotel room, say, in Paris, noting down a phone number, which he precedes to call. Continuing to hold his pen, he draws one line as he waits as the phone rings and, once it is picked up, Lynch continues the line into a curve and then another line. He completes the doodle once the call is over. At times the pages are full from corner to corner of words, numbers and quirky images. It is an indelible record of the passage of his time, thoughts and perhaps conversation during one phone call.

Some of the paraphernalia of materials contain merely a couple of lines formulating a frequently returned to symbol of a triangle or dog, the name ‘Bob’ (of whom for Lynch there are apparently many and not just the one who evokes fear in our collective memory). The triangle, in fact, was apparently the impetus behind Lynch’s choice of how to hang his paintings, which hang in both spaces on the first floor. Where are hung the sketches along three walls, are enormous sheets of grey canvas strung taught between tailor-made freestanding scaffolding. The second space has the same scaffolding but in place of canvas are heavy elegant curtains in velvets of yellow and red. From these structures, set apart from their backing, are large-scale paintings that are tactile for us and for Lynch malleable formations of the darker sides of sexuality, psychology and human beings. On many of the paintings, dolls heads and limbs have been crushed or melted onto the surface of the canvas and wide twigs or clumps of hairy material surround and smother them. In fact, dead flies are used to ornament the deeper recesses of a gaunt skull-like face, which emerged rather ominously after I took a step closer to the work. This darker edge is quite compelling and once seen, created in me a rather morbid fascination to see what other unexpected materials had been used on his paintings. The surfaces of the paintings are heavy dense impasto in sluggish brows and blacks and bear the incised or stuck on examples of typical ‘Lynchean’ phraseology, or ‘thoughts’ as he calls them, such as the three following (from three different works):

Do you want to know what I really think? No.; My head is disconnected; I didn’t know that the gun was loaded sorry

Sometimes the paintings’ so-called subject matter will suit the sentences, at others not. I don’t feel that a symbiosis between the two is necessary. As with the music performance on Friday evening, the improvised sound was initiated by Lynch reading out a ‘thought’ of one or two indirectly related sentences that call to mind the poetry of the Dadaists. The sound played thereafter could have fit any of the three thoughts read out but what I felt was of more importance was the discord or arbitrariness between the two, in keeping with that we now call the ‘Lynchean’ essence of his films.

His one hundred and thirty-odd photographs, on the other hand, on the ground floor, are not so much about the placement of two elements that are forced to dialogue, usually with discomfort, but rather quite beautiful in their simplicity. The series was shot over the last year in the same locations as the scenes in INLAND EMPIRE – Poland, Germany and Brooklyn. They are divided between colour and black and white. Colour is used predominantly to define the female form, the play of light as it enhances and diffuses the curve of a breast, a nose, two hands clasped together, blond hair a mass of soft light. Black and white was used to good atmospheric effect: a generic hotel bedroom shot with a wide-angled lens, double-bed lit on either side by side lights attached to the head board forming two pools of light; Lynch looking back at us from a half-length horizontal mirror; the New York skyline with the instantly recognisable cursive Pepsi-Cola sign shot through wire fencing; turn of the 20th century mechanisations, such as valves and levers, of heavy iron and steel in darkened corners; amongst many others. These photographs are hung in the larger downstairs space alongside a series of grey watercolours, a small-scale re-created film theatre – equipped with stage, heavy drawn curtains, four rows of red velvet seats and a lit ‘sortie’ (exit) sign to the right of the stage. In the smaller space next door, I introduced a friend by making him close his eyes and leading him to where on the wall is hung a small painting of a lounge interior containing a red and black patterned carpet, blue walls with yellow short zigzag patterns, two arched alcoves before which sit on one pink and one black circular mat, a zebra-striped sofa chair and a sofa. It’s an intimate and playful interior. I then turned my friend around so as to face the heart of the room; before him was recreated in 3D life-size format, an exact replica of the scene we had just examined on paper that could be walked through. Like two pillars, on either side of the set, leading to a final series of work, are two plinths on which, between tall tapering reeds, sit one colourful stiletto. These ‘pillars’ stand sentry to the photographic works to follow – Lynch’s Distorted Nudes. These are original 1840 - 1940 erotic photographs that Lynch has distorted with the computer software Photoshop to create a hybrid melange of contorted, distorted half-figures missing limbs, faces and definition but very clearly involved in a blurringly orgasmic, carnal devouring of themselves and those from whom they have become inseparable. Two, three beings lost to the pleasure-pain in the search for sexual satisfaction. It is hard, as with the sketches upstairs, not to make art historical comparisons; with these photographs to Francis Bacon and with those upstairs, at times, to Wassily Kandinsky. This latter comparison becomes stronger when the ‘triggers’ (red buttons at various strategic points on both levels) are pushed. Sounds have been layered so that at every push a new element enters the spectrum, roaring from the speakers – thunder darkly rumbles; at some distance a telephone quietly and persistently rings; a loud, unexpected burst of thunder; a constant undeterred discomforting wave of low vibrations and tones. Sound is the element that pulls all the various media in the exhibition together and makes the exhibition truly ‘Lynchean’.

The performance on Friday evening, on the little stage on the ground floor that was created to show some of Lynch’s earliest films - Six Men Getting Sick, The Alphabet and The Grandmother - was eagerly awaited despite the hour delay, the rain and the pushing, struggling crowd of people outside. The two performers, Lynch and composer and musician, Marek Zebrowski, took their seats and, after Lynch had read out an abstract and banal ‘thought’ (amusing in its unexpected pairing of subjects and settings), the synthesizer kicked in a constant drum of heavy dark tones, which acted like a stage set on which the notes from the keyboards acted out the event. Although perhaps less interesting without visuals, to see Lynch’s performance was unmissable. Sitting still and upright, hair immaculate, one curl reaching out to gently pay homage to his forehead, his jaw clenching and teeth perhaps grinding a little, his hands fluttered between keyboard and synthesizer, as they are wont to do continually as he speaks, and he carried the audience from image to image – both those in the exhibition and those of the imagination – and let us into, as fleeting as it feels, the creative process and mind of David Lynch, despite being left feeling that it is really only the tip of the iceberg.

The Air is On Fire runs until the 27 May

Fondation Cartier

261 Boulevard Raspail, Paris