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Meeting a god: the diverse career of David Lynch on show at GOMA

David Lynch: Between Two Worlds is a major event for Brisbane. David Lynch's Emily Screaming. 2008. GOMA

Meeting a god is a forbidding prospect. For such a meeting, you need to be circumspect. You need to maintain a degree of elegance in the face of utter star-strike. And you need to be prepared to be surprised in all manner of ways. Not least by the fact that the deity in question, rather than being a firebreathing diva, might turn out to be generous and memorably warm.

Filmmaker and artist David Lynch has occupied a place in my Pantheon of Creators since I first saw Blue Velvet as a keen 16-year-old. He has continued to astonish, exhilarate and confront me in the intervening 20-plus years. At Between Two Worlds, the remarkable retrospective of Lynch’s work currently on show at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, I came tantalisingly close to meeting one of my idols. I only got to ask him one question in the end, but it was worth the wait.

1991 was perhaps the point at which Lynch’s star rose to its public peak. Twin Peaks was enjoying staggering worldwide popularity and Lynch had won the film world’s most coveted award, the Palme d’Or, for Wild at Heart.

Blue Velvet (1986) trailer.

As a filmmaker, painter, photographer, sculptor, writer, campaigner, and – most surprisingly, perhaps – musician, Lynch has since carved a unique niche in the art world as the most idiosyncratic and renowned artistic talent ever to have filmed a cigarette commercial.

Between Two Worlds comprises an extensive selection of the artist’s painting, photography and lithographs, accompanied by an intriguing collection of lesser-known drawings, sketches and sculptures.

David Lynch’s Boy Lights Fire, 2010. GOMA

Evening screenings of Lynch’s films at the GOMA are being complemented by documentaries about the artist, musical performances inspired by his work, and a series of lectures and discussions set to illuminate what’s adorning the walls and screens (there’s even a Twin Peaks quiz night).

This is a comprehensive series of events indeed, featuring contributions from scholars and devotees, fellow artists and art historians. It is a major exhibition by any gallery’s standards and a significant moment for the city of Brisbane – many of whose walls, walkways and bus-stops are adorned with images from the exhibition.

Fanboys and girls will be delighted by all of this, of course, but there’s far more going on in the GOMA events than just the display of a series of works created by a cultural icon.

Curator José da Silva’s work with this exhibition finds perhaps its greatest triumph in its powerful explanation of the connections between all of the elements of Lynch’s artistic output.

It is in poring over the exhibition that we see the way in which tiny, elaborate sketches on match books and napkins inform the designs for the larger paintings, and the ways in which the paintings bleed into and out of the works for the cinema.

The importance of sound in Lynch’s oeuvre is also reinforced by a comprehensive collection of film scores and other musical works. Here, too, one sees a complexly inter-related series of compositions and collaborations that form a substantial element of the artist’s output.

There is a unity of vision on display here that confirms Lynch as indeed a major artist. His work maintains a series of thematic fascinations and stylistic trademarks that render it strikingly coherent, despite its oft-discussed “strangeness” and its frequent centralising of the abstract.

David Lynch’s Man Waking from Dream, 2008. GOMA

The notion of abstraction has indeed characterised the long discussion surrounding the works of this influential man. A notable element of Lynch’s address to his own work is his consistent refusal to be pinned down to any comfortable – or even consistent – notion of “meaning”.

There are numerous recorded examples of interviewers presenting the artist with “interpretations” of his work, only to – usually very politely – have these interpretations contradicted or juxtaposed with Lynch’s own alluringly ambiguous descriptions of process and intention.

During my yearned-for chance to pose a question to Lynch, I learned what it was like to have one’s carefully-composed proposition refuted.

I have long held that there are lucid connections between the profound affect Lynch’s works evoke in the viewer and the experience of dream. I asked him whether his work represented a way for him to share his dreams with an audience; the answer was no – though the gentle rebuttal was followed by a fascinating rumination on ideas of dream-logic, discontinuities, and the very sources of ideas, many of which Lynch claims to find through a kind of waking dreaming.

The response to my question was thus more intriguing than I had anticipated, even though it began with negation.

David Lynch remains, in every way, the genuine artefact: attentive and serious in response to questions, warm and generous in a brief meeting, and dedicated to an ongoing and expansive body of works.

Da Silva’s beautifully curated exhibition serves to reinforce these notions in the most memorable of ways.

Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is hosting the exhibition David Lynch: Between Two Worlds until June 7. Details here.

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