The Unified Field: Filmmaker David Lynch Displays his Painterly Roots

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

David Lynch may be the world’s premiere filmmaker of dark interiority. He’s known for films like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, which use unsettling, painterly images to explore how the human psyche processes dysfunction. Although out of the spotlight since releasing the masterful Mulholland Drive in 2001, the last thirteen years have in fact been very productive for Lynch. He’s made a number of film shorts, a web series, a collaborative documentary with fellow filmic crazy man Werner Herzog, and, most importantly, started his own brand of coffee, the “David Lynch Signature Cup.” He has also completed several dozen paintings, many of which are on display in the exhibit David Lynch: The Unified Field at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts through January 11th, 2015.

Located just a few blocks from Suburban Station (which is about a thirty minute train ride away from Swat), the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts is the oldest museum and art school in the United States. Although Lynch is known for his films, his roots are in painting: he studied at the PAFA during the late 1960s. This time spent in Philly was crucial for him as an artist. On the plaque next to the exhibit’s entrance, one of his quotes is displayed: “Something clicked in Philly […] a great mood–factories, smoke, railroads, diners, the strangest characters and the darkest nights. The people had stories etched in their faces, and I saw vivid images–plastic curtains held together with Band-Aids, rags stuffed in broken windows. So many things grew out of it, things I’m probably not even aware of. It was staggeringly important.” Maybe that’s why Lynch chose to hold his first major American museum exhibition in Philadelphia.

The exhibit’s entrance is announced by a otherwise undecorated wall, on which is scrawled in his almost deliberately crooked handwriting:

The Unified Field entrance sign.

Standing before it, I’m immediately stricken with the fact that his letters look more like individually scrawled figures than words written by a practiced hand. This would be a recurring element of his artwork, most of which have their titles written somewhere on them, like labels on children’s drawings. From the beginning, Lynch is blurring a barrier–the one between text and image.

The exhibit consists of three cavernous rooms along the far end of the PAFA’s second floor, as well as a first floor nook that houses Six Men Getting Sick. Of the three rooms, one is dedicated to Lynch’s student work–including production art for Eraserhead–while most of the rest are from the last five years.

This exhibit elucidates a number of Lynch’s obsessions, including the desire to consume or possess as an injury to another person, good in close proximity with evil, and the fact that our most wretched ejecta are in fact reflections of ourselves. In Lynch’s creative output, what comes out of human figures is often indistinguishable from what goes in, bodily and emotionally, illustrating how people are both products and agents of their environments. My favorites are from his collection of recent works are the portraits of figures consuming or ejecting material, such as Man Talking and Man Eating.

man talking
Man Talking (2009)
Man Eating
Man Eating (2010)

Lynch prefers painting with his fingers, and you can tell. His output is intensely tactile. He often works using cardboard as a base and includes elements of mixed media like lightbulbs, sculpted props, and newspaper cutout sentences. One painting even has dead insects mixed into the paint. As he has said in past interviews, “I like to feel that you could bite my paintings. Not to eat them, to hurt them. I like to feel like I’m painting with my teeth.” This is accurate.

A Figure Witnessing the Orchestration of Time (1990)
A Figure Witnessing the Orchestration of Time (1990)
Close-up of A Figure Witnessing the Orchestration of Time (1990)

There’s a raw terror rooted in a childhood sensation of defiled space here. The strongest recurring element in his work–particularly in his sketches–is drawing a simple, childlike house, labelling it MY HOUSE, and insisting that SOMEONE IS IN MY HOUSE. Described, they seem so vague, but facing them, these sketches reach into some deep, even atavistic fear of abandonment or disturbed unity–maybe from back before we realized that our mothers leaving our sights didn’t mean that they’d be gone forever. In some ways, his artworks are landscapes of childhood memories. They depict what I call “the distorted scale of childhood importance” – a representation of how we perceived the world before we became aware of its actual social and spatial relationships, and all that defined an object was how prominent it was to our nascent being. Unsurprisingly, his early influences include Francis Bacon, the great painter of figurative horror.

She Was Walking To Her House And Then There Was Someone (2013). Image courtesy of


Despite the simultaneously childlike and disturbing nature of his artwork, Lynch insists that he had a happy childhood. However, that doesn’t mean that his childhood doesn’t have a strong influence on his work. Many paintings are accompanied by anecdotes from it, like the fact that his father was worked as a researcher for the Department of Agriculture. Because of this, Lynch was often exposed to deceased trees, bulbous with sores. On the plaque accompanying Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores, he recounts, “I was exposed to insects, disease, and and growth, in an organic sort of world, like a forest, or even a garden. And this sort of thrills me–this earth, and then these plants coming out, and then there’s the things crawling on them and the activity in the garden–so many textures, and movements. You could just get lost forever. And then there are lots of things that are attacking the garden. There’s a lot of slaughter and death, diseases, worms, grubs, and ants.”

For student fare of $12 and a day off campus, the exhibit is well worth visiting for anyone with an interest in the visual arts, film, or the just plain macabre. David Lynch is a visionary filmmaker, and it’s enlightening (or, if you’re on the squeamish side, frightful) to see how this translates to another medium.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Gabriella Ekens ’17/The Daily Gazette.

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