Visual Culture

David Lynch Turns His Cryptic Storytelling into Frightening New Canvases

Alina Cohen
Nov 8, 2019 5:59PM

Portrait of David Lynch by Josh Telles. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Weswater, New York.

Installation view of David Lynch, Dialogue During a Picnic #2, 2019; Lamp, 2019, in “Squeaky Flies in the Mud,” at Sperone Westwater, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

Filmmaker David Lynch, master of cinematic mood, has created a suite of eerie, beguiling, and poignant new paintings. On November 1st, New York gallery Sperone Westwater opened a show of the work, titled “Squeaky Flies in the Mud.” The first canvases I noticed feature handwritten text above black humor–laden imagery. Billy (and His Friends) Did Find Sally in the Tree (2018) depicts a many-headed figure approaching a knobby tree where a girl hangs from a noose—a Lynchian lynching. A larger figure sits atop a branch, mouth mid-scream. In Billy Sings the Tune for the Death Row Shuffle (2018), a Mickey Mouse–shaped head floats above a figure’s body like a balloon. He holds a row of teeth, apparently ripped from the mouth of the brown dog beneath him. Creepy echoes abound.

These canvases’ violence, absurdity, and loose narratives are defining characteristics of Lynch’s oeuvre. In films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Eraserhead (1977), and the cult television show Twin Peaks (1990–91/2017), viewers find, respectively, a woman furiously masturbating and crying just before she kills herself; one of the most disturbing babies in all of American cinema; and a high school girl murdered and wrapped in plastic. Lynch’s celebrated movie career is actually an outgrowth of his equally dark and vivid visual art practice. In the 1960s, he studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While in school, Lynch made his first film,Six Men Getting Sick (1967). The work—which comprises about a minute-long loop of shadowy male figures vomiting, disappearing, and reappearing—started to fulfill his desire to make his paintings move. Over the ensuing decades, Lynch has continued his studio practice and made canvases that are both imaginative and autobiographical, narrative and resistant to storytelling.

David Lynch, Billy (and His Friends) Did Find Sally in the Tree , 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

David Lynch, Billy Sings the Tune for the Death Row Shuffle, 2018. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.


When I spoke to Lynch in the upstairs library at Sperone Westwater, I hoped for more clarity on his Billy character in the recent paintings. He sat across the table from me, sipping a fresh cup of coffee, with cigarette butts stubbed out in a small ramekin in front of him. A pleasant, smoky haze filled the room. “Billy can be different things,” Lynch told me, his sky blue eyes aiming at the wood paneling behind me. “In one thing, he can be one way, and you’d feel that. In another, Billy can be quite a bit different, and you’d feel that in the painting.” He met my request for further explanation with even more mystery. “Well, there’s a lot of people named Billy,” he said, “but they’re not all the same person. You know what I mean?”

While that’s certainly indisputable, it’s also true that duplicate selves—and worlds—have long pervaded Lynch’s work. Twin Peaks alone features perhaps five different universes and a character, Agent Cooper, who’s split into three bodies.

Installation view of David Lynch, Ricky Finds out He Has Shit for Brains, 2017, in “Squeaky Flies in the Mud,” at Sperone Westwater, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

“These are stories of things that can happen, that can go wrong,” Lynch said about the paintings. Billy has “mental problems” and “a lot of different friends within him.” Death Row Shuffle considers how “people treat animals and one thing leads to another.”

All this dark material stands in stark contrast to the “unbounded, infinite intelligence, happiness, creativity, love, energy, power, and peace” that Lynch said is accessible through transcendental meditation. Since 1973, he’s meditated twice a day. In 2005, he established the David Lynch Foundation for healing stress and easing suffering through the practice. While speaking to me, Lynch was significantly more forthcoming about this subject than he was about the content of his paintings.

David Lynch , Squeaky Flies in the Mud, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

David Lynch , Red Idaho with Seed Pod, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

Meditation, for Lynch, is a means for unlocking creativity and finding maximal joy in artmaking. He spoke of the expanding “ball of consciousness” and the “bank vault” of “gold” that meditation can help individuals access. “Negativity is just like darkness,” Lynch said. “Then you say, ‘Wait a minute, darkness isn’t really anything. It’s just the absence of something.’ Sunlight removes darkness, but it doesn’t remove negativity. So you say, ‘What light would remove negativity just like sunlight removes darkness?’ And the answer is that light from the transcendent, that light of pure consciousness, that light from the treasury within. You start enlivening that, turning that light on, and automatically, negativity starts to go.” Even this line of conversation generated strange images and half-narratives.

In most of his paintings, Lynch toys with language, conversing with his viewers via hand-scrawled words. Yet two canvases, perhaps the most personal and poignant, feature no text at all. Childhood Painting #1 (2019), which extends to 7 by 10 feet, features a house, barn, tree, and field rendered in loose lines that evoke childhood drawings of home. The murky, brushy sepia tones suggest memory itself. Red Idaho with Seed Pod (2019) is a spare gray canvas overlaid with pictures of the titular elements. Lynch himself used to live in Boise. His father was in charge of the Boise National Experimental Forest in Idaho City, working for the Department of Agriculture. One weekend, Lynch and his father planted 500 trees.

Installation view of David Lynch, Ointment , 2019; Childhood Painting #1 , 2019; Susie Left home at age 14, 2019, in “Squeaky Flies in the Mud,” at Sperone Westwater, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

“So you wanted to include Idaho in the painting . . .” I started.

“No, I just love the shape of Idaho,” Lynch answered.

Yet it was impossible not to think of the painting as his own private Idaho, or not to think of the seed pod as akin to a “rosebud.” Lynch’s paintings can seem as much in dialogue with the history of cinema as they are tied to the history of art. Throughout Lynch’s work, the owlsare neverwhat they seem.

Installation view of David Lynch, “Squeaky Flies in the Mud,” at Sperone Westwater, 2019. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

At the end of the interview, running out of time while the next writer waited in the wings for his chance with Lynch, I quickly asked the artist about the diverse materiality within his paintings. Their thick surfaces are significant build-ups of gauze and impasto, given further dimensionality by bandages, faux-flowers, and a silver tube. Lynch gave a brief, vague answer that sums up his singular, multifaceted, often confounding, always captivating, decades-long career. “I love textures. I love organic phenomena,” he said. “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.”

Alina Cohen