David Lynch: From the Screen to the Canvas / by Amanda Silberling

By Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor

Courtesy of David Lynch

Courtesy of David Lynch

“There are things that can’t be said with words,” says David Lynch, most famous for films like Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986). “Painting is the one thing that carries through everything else.”

There’s something ironic about this statement, though—if there’s one thing that connects David Lynch’s The Unified Field, it’s the art’s use of words. In his first major museum exhibition, Lynch showcases just fewer than one hundred artworks, many of which use brief sentences and phrases written on the works as their titles. In particular, the painting Oh… Did I Say Something Wrong? (1996), which depicts a thick, stick-figure, brush-stroked man asking the question in the title, emerges as a piece that illustrates the theme of the show.

During his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Lynch was an innovator—while his classmates were painters, Lynch moved into hybrid forms. Lynch was clearly frustrated with being a different type of artist than his classmates—before trying his hand at film, he used acrylic, pastels, and graphite to create a work called P.A.F.A. Is Sickening (1967), which was amusingly placed in the front of The Unified Field.

Stills from Sick Men Getting Sick (1967). Courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Stills from Sick Men Getting Sick (1967). Courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Lynch’s first attempt at hybrid film works while at PAFA, Six Men Getting Sick (1967), is a 60-second, vibrantly-colored and morbid film projected onto a wall with three white heads bulging out. The only audio in the film is the sound of sirens. Here, it was showcased for the first time since it was originally shown when Lynch was a PAFA student. Only by deviating from the norm at PAFA did Lynch find his place in the art world—and even after moving towards film, he still deviated from the norms constructed within that distinct genre, creating grotesque and psychological horror flicks.

As PAFA visitors wandered through The Unified Field and observed its grotesque, domestically-violent works, people openly voiced their concerns about whether or not David Lynch suffered an abusive childhood. But Lynch was not unusually troubled—he just dares to reveal the most corrupt, foul thoughts that had filtered through his mind, rather than hiding away the dark side that any human has. My Head is Disconnected (1994), a tempera on a wood panel, shows a sharp black silhouette of a man whose rectangular head is floating out from his grasp. Behind the figure on a white background, Lynch writes the title of the painting. This painting reflects on the common trope of the depressed, alienated artist—it’s almost as though Lynch is anticipating how viewers may react to his macabre works, thinking that he must be insane.

Pete Goes To His Girlfriend's House (2010). Courtesy of the artist.

Pete Goes To His Girlfriend's House (2010). Courtesy of the artist.

Through The Unified Field, David Lynch challenges his viewers to bypass their expectations about what makes art beautiful. When placed inside the main PAFA building next to older impressionist works, it can be hard to find beauty in Lynch’s less visually appealing pieces, which seem as though they were created in an anxious haste—however, this juxtaposition positively highlights the oddities of Lynch’s work. This shows the viewer that art need not be visually appealing to be considered “good.” David Lynch’s show is not for the faint-hearted, but sometimes, the best works of art are those that take us out of our comfort zones and make us reevaluate our preconceived notions of what art should be. 


Amanda Silberling is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, originally from South Florida. Recently, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard ReviewThe Louisville ReviewTinderbox Poetry JournalSOFTBLOW, Cleaver Magazine, and more. Her essays have appeared in PANK and The Los Angeles Times, and she regularly writes and photographs for Rock On Philly. She is the Blog Editor at The Adroit Journal.