The Fire This Time

Originally published in Metropolitan

David Lynch

In a scene straight from one of his films, David Lynch stands huddled beneath an enormous tree, strong winds lashing branches overhead and scattering leaves against the dark afternoon sky. One hand cups a cigarette, the other is pressed to the trunk as though in quiet communication. Before him looms the prismatic glass building of the Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporain, a creative stable for Lynch since it staged ‘The Air Is On Fire’ (2007), a showcase for more than 40 years of his painting, drawing and photography. This winter sees ‘The Inhabitants’, an exhibition marking the foundation’s 30th birthday, and featuring both old and new work by the American auteur, who seems grateful to finally be free of the filmmaker pigeonhole.

“Ideas are beautiful,” says Lynch once we’ve relocated to a glass office on the foundation’s upper floor, pausing to savour sips of his espresso, dazzling blue eyes fixed on the storm beyond the window. “As long as the ideas keep coming, I’ll be working in one medium or another. There’s still this terrible thing where an actor might retire and start painting, but people won’t take his painting seriously – and there might be some actors that are killer painters. I think that kind of pigeonholing is slowly going away, and people are allowed to move into any medium.”

Regardless of his chosen form, there are immediately recognisable aspects that underpin Lynch’s work, and which have led to common usage of the term Lynchian – a singular privilege for a living artist. Chief among these is a sinister subversion of the picket fence optimism of 1950s America. The felt tip and pencil work ‘Untitled (Drawing For An Interior)’, currently on display at ‘The Inhabitants’, is a good example: a hallucinatory take on the ideal American living room, its warped contours and crazed colours suggesting something monstrous lurking in the wings of the mundane. Lynch’s own church-going childhood was idyllic, yet he remembers as a young boy becoming aware of a crawling otherness behind the manicured lawns and clapboard facades of the Pacific Northwest.

“I remember laying on the front lawn, and I could see the grass that was close to me, but also the neighbourhood and the blue skies beyond. And it just seemed that life was so beautiful, such a gift.” Lynch’s eyes close, the fingers of one hand flutter as though transcribing from the air itself. “But I also remember one night when I was down the street with my brother, and from out the darkness came a nude adult woman, not able to walk very well, some blood around her mouth, completely out of it. She came walking towards us and sat on the curb, and my brother started to cry. I’d never seen a nude woman before. I knew she was in bad shape, and I wanted to do something to help her but I didn’t know what to do. So I guess we just left. I don’t remember the end of it.”

In some ways there was no end: Lynch has been locating the woman in his work ever since. She is his former lover Isabella Rossellini’s traumatised jazz singer emerging naked and beaten from the darkness behind young Kyle MacLachlan’s family home in Blue Velvet; she is amnesia-stricken Rita curling up to sleep in the bushes of a Hollywood garden in Mulholland Drive. And she is Ronette Pulaski in rags, her hands still tied, staggering home over the railway bridge in Twin Peaks – a show that made headlines around the world this year when Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost announced a third season to air in 2016, contradicting Lynch’s previous assertion that he would never return to television.

“Arthouses are gone,” he explains, “the alternative cinema is hurting bad. The only place left for alternative cinema is film festivals. What people are seeing in movie theatres isn’t generally something I’m wanting to do, and I don’t really make things that have ever generated a lot of money, so if money is running the show then they wouldn’t want me around. It seems to me that cable television is the new arthouse. I had lunch with Mark Frost one day and one thing led to another, and now we’re going back into the world of Twin Peaks. And I love that world.”

Lynch himself is a student of classic film – references to 1950s masterpieces abound in his work (his own role in Twin Peaks is named after an incidental character in Sunset Boulevard) – but he has also embraced digital photography, Photoshop and Twitter. It remains to be seen how Lynch will accommodate the insatiable now-ness of the social networking generation 25 years after the slow burning art of the Twin Peaks pilot first aired.

“Things have definitely changed. First it was a demand for quick cuts that came out of commercials. Now we’re in a place where there are so many images on the internet that they become kind of cheap, throwaway things, even the beautiful images. Art isn’t appreciated in the same way that it was even ten years ago. But in a weird way it’s also beautiful, because the kind of stuff I like is so different. I don’t fear this new thing, it’s just interesting.”

Despite the darkness at the centre of his work, Lynch himself remains a pillar of optimism and affability, his inimitable voice – sometimes inadequately described as ‘Jimmy Stewart on acid’ – peppered with rockabilly turns of phrase and buoyed by a child-like fascination with the people and places around him. This outlook owes much to the transcendental meditation that he has practised since 1973, and which he now promotes in schools through his David Lynch Foundation. Yet one thing continues to rile him: the modern expectation for artists to explain the meaning at the centre of their work.

“You work very hard to make a film or a painting, and the second you’re finished people want you to start talking about it. The work is the thing, you struggled to get all the elements correct, and sometimes ideas came that led you places you didn’t expect to go, and maybe you don’t know the meaning of them yourself. In some ways words could actually start destroying what you worked so hard to create, so it’s better not to talk about those things. I just try to let the work do the talking.”