David Lynch: The Air Is on Fireby David Lynch
Thames & Hudson, April 15, 2007
452 pages, hardcover
Reviewed by Jain Lemos
David Lynch fans will adore David Lynch: The Air Is On Fire, by David Lynch. This brilliantly crafted volume is a first major artwork collection featuring his early doodling sets dating back some forty years. Coinciding with a major exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, The Air is a compilation of various still art studies by the Montana-born and Idaho-raised 61-year-old filmmaker. Best known for his unusual movies including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, not surprisingly, this book reveals that Lynch’s extreme visuals also abound in his other art forms.
The most satisfying aspect of The Air, an ensemble of Lynch’s drawings, paintings, photographs, and mixed-media pieces, is that through his art, readers at long-last receive some insight and extra continuity to the story-line conundrums of his moving pictures. This is helped by the book’s text, a transcription of a rare and revealing interview between Lynch and journalist Kristine McKenna. As they leaf through the book, Lynch explains just how or why his familiar bits show up in the pallet of his clever work. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of his inner workings will start to see Lynch in a new, perhaps more tolerant, way. In at least two of his films, Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Lynch depicted women and disjointed female figures in a disturbing light. Some critics accused him of misogyny. Controversy aside, Lynch earned his place as a serious contender in Hollywood—even after flopping with his inability to properly film the science fiction favorite Dune—with comebacks including his most recent, Inland Empire.
Students of his films will recognize the Lynch trademarks that permeate his art: deformities, cripples, midgets, mutants, traumatic head injuries, vomiting, disembodied nudes, industrial settings with smoke, dark streets and damaged electric lights, dogs, stink bugs, red curtains, distorted rooms and seedy vintage furniture. From pristine napkins pulled from the metal dispensers in the booths at Bob’s Big Boy diner, to Post-its or the cheap inside cardboard of a matchbook, and from Ricky Boards (shown is a collection of individually named dead bees glued in rows on a board), giant walk-in scene recreations and Photoshop experiments to master-level photography studies, all of Lynch’s artistic mediums seem hip. He will use anything handy including Sharpies, pastels, watercolors, rigged cameras, actual clothing or “really sharp pencils,” and then make it his own.
Lynch’s early sketches and graphic triptychs are enjoyable to skim and his surrealism and collage studies of various forms of madness, hallucination and illusion are evocative. However, it’s the straight modernism beauty of his industrial wasteland photographs that towers above the rest of his artwork. The years when Lynch was a developing artist living in Philadelphia is probably his most unaffected; during the interview he talks with fondness of the experimental days there before his fame. His deeply embedded love for the city is evident in his photographs of other manufacturing settings taken over the ensuing years. Consequently, the black-and-whites in the section “Photographs” form one of the most extensively developed themes in the book. These dark images, shot with brilliant drips of light, are reminiscent of Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand and Paul Outerbridge.
There is a dramatic photograph of a ladder—Lynch doesn’t recall if he shot it in Germany or in New York—that smoothly introduces his industrial picture portfolio. McKenna asks him what it is that thrills him about the ruins of the Industrial Revolution. Lynch equates these factory-type settings to cathedrals and muses, “Well, look at them, they’re like watercolors, you know? And the way nature goes to work on the steel, the bricks, the concrete. It’s just unbelievably beautiful!” He admits trying to light them but hated the effect. He now shoots with whatever light ekes in. The effect is sultry and oddly warm. Clearly, Lynch’s ability to evoke emotions from the marriage of industry and the ravages of time are among his best talents.
The Air offers two different types of nude studies. In creating the images seen in “Distorted Nudes,” Lynch scanned images from the book 1000 Nudes: A History of Erotic Photography from 1839-1939 by Hans-Michael Koetzle (Taschen, 2005) as part of his process for learning Photoshop. He zoomed in on something in the frame to create his departure point for distorting the figures into gruesome shapes. Some are more silly than frightening, like one nude with the head of a monkey. Admittedly several are pretty violent, such as a woman holding her disembodied head. Lynch denies that he that he would want to rearrange body parts in a morgue if he had the opportunity. He refers to this episode in his artistic rhythm as, “a euphoric kind of study.”
The second series of nude photographs that close the book are magnificent. They are compelling and sweet, effortless and stark. There is a text section preceding these images from art critics Andrei Ujica and Boris Groys who discuss Lynch’s psychology. They look for parallels among his still artwork and films and examine the artists who provided inspiration. They also make a prediction of Lynch’s future. They tell us we can expect a new stage in Lynch’s cinematic and artistic works.
The overall high-end production values of this pricey tomb, printed and bound in Germany, are refreshing. The cover is sublime and touchable; the opening half-signature of endpapers are a nice warm-up to the cryptic mind of Lynch. Artwork is carefully arranged and properly displayed to emulate museum standards. Throughout The Air are short breakout sections of still photos from his various movies, most not taken by Lynch. These might seem incongruous but they provide a valuable foil to compare and contrast Lynch’s overall work, as well as visual relief from his other art forms.
The only downside to The Air—and it is a large one—is the mistake of binding into the book two CDs of the recorded conversation between Lynch and McKenna. This is the exact transcript already provided in the book’s introductory pages. First, the disks have to be removed from their tipped-in velum sleeves in order for the book to lie flat when opened. Once the CDs are sitting on your desk imitating Lynch-crafted disjointed appendages there is a compulsion to go ahead and play them. Technically, there were some irritating launching and sound-level problems, but the biggest downer is the accompanying visuals. On the media player’s screen while they talk is some kind of completely gratuitous and unrelated looping gyrating etch-a-sketch kaleidoscope montage. It’s horrible, but not the David Lynch type of horrible.
A large debt of gratitude goes to Debby Trutnik, Lynch’s longtime and extremely organized assistant. She had the foresight over the years to preserve each of her boss’s odd and often discarded scribbles into carefully packed archival boxes. As a result she allowed for the production of this satisfying book that will inspire artists. In the end, Lynch leaves us with an invaluable lesson: Just pick up what’s at hand and see what develops. Even if your art comes out a bit twisted, it will ring with spontaneity and sincerity.