Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Elemental Lynch

David Lynch: The Air Is on Fire

by David Lynch
Thames & Hudson, April 15, 2007
452 pages, hardcover
469 illustrations

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.

How's it Hanging?

Exhibition Design

by David Dernie
W.W. Norton, 2006
192 pages, hardcover

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

When you need a roadmap to navigate the world of exhibits, architect David Dernie, exhibition designer and head of the Manchester School of Architecture, gives you several in his new book, Exhibition Design. It is the must-have bible for understanding every detail imaginable when it comes to displaying artistic works. The book is professionally approached from start to finish and lives up to its promise that readers will come away inspired and informed. The large format trim size, full page reproductions and tasteful design of this book make it an exhibition of its own.

In the introduction, Dernie lays out the philosophies behind exhibiting works of art. Through careful examination, he brings the past, present, and future into play so readers can understand how various techniques for display methodology have developed and continue to expand in a competitive arena. He discusses the importance of the exhibit designer’s strategically important inclusion of the whole set of products created when a museum plans an exhibition. These include books, merchandise, films, electronic media, clothing, gift products, and more.

Exhibition is sectioned into two main categories: Approaches and Techniques. In Approaches, readers are given examples of how narrative space, performative space, and simulated experience are utilized. At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gas canisters used in the concentration camps are on display as a separate detail, giving measured weight to the exhibit’s shocking account of this historic period as visitors roam through reconstructions of a typical camp’s interior. Floor plans are also provided as diagrams with arrows showing how visitors flow through exhibits for maximum circulation. Complicated installations are examined, such as The Weather Project at the Tate Modern in London where a simulation using mirrors created a kind of live-in artwork experience.

The second section called Techniques, brings to the forefront the nuts-and-bolts of how display, lighting, color, sound and graphics have been used for maximum impact. Lighting is a make-or-break element to any exhibition, but the other themes in this section are equally vital to any well run display. One of Dernie’s examinations in this half of the book is a look at the International Center of Photography’s display on the history of photography in magazines. A clever technique used in this exhibition was the construction of angled display panels to illustrate the concept of field of vision.

Exhibition does a fair job of including examples of shows by award-winning architects and designers as well as minor artist-designed displays. There are major institutions and simple business fairs to study and compare. This book is ideal for a host of picture professionals, museum aficionados and both seasoned and beginning exhibit designers. Learning the special language and terms used in preparing any type of exhibit is critical. Exhibition nails these terms to the wall while providing plenty of examples to help plan and execute a winning exhibit.

A Celluloid Scavenger Hunt

On Location: Cities of the World in Film

by Claudia Hellmann and Claudine Weber-Hof
Bucher, 2006
192 pages, hardcover
400 illustrations, $45.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

On Location: Cities of the World in Film, from German publisher Bucher, crams a world of information about the filming of 58 movies in 18 cities into one giant maze of a book. Authors Hellmann and Weber-Hof selected eight European cities, six in North America, and four in Australasia to set the stage for this ambitious undertaking. While the cities chosen are hardly exotic locations, they are popular tourist destinations. Roaming through the streets scavenger-hunt style looking to stand in the spot where film stars created memorable moments is an appealing concept.

Organized into chapters alphabetically by city, each section has been given a theme for the films that are covered. For Chicago it’s “Gangsters and the Blues,” Paris is deemed the “City of Love, City of Film,” and for Havana, they’ve chosen the subheading, “Flair of the Caribbean.” As you drill down into each chapter, the authors provide fresh and readable narrative about each film’s storyline, including bits of relatively unknown trivia about the locations, filmmakers and actors. As a bonus, key locations in the text are in bold type, and a subsequent map of the city pinpoints these highlighted areas. Each film has a sidebar listing the director, principal actors and year the film was released.

The page design is clever and allows room for the various content elements, but does get busy looking. Images typically run less than half page, with decent reproductions and useful captions. The illustrations in Location are a mix of stills and memorabilia from the movies, city portrait photography by David John Weber and pick-up shots unrelated to the movie which are used as fillers. In the spreads for “The Last Emperor,” there is a gratuitous snap of a golden lion statue on the grounds of the Imperial Palace and a lackluster overview shot of the Forbidden City. These substitute images work to present a sense of the place but also give the book a travel guide feel. For film buffs, the true moments captured during filming—such as the intimate shot of Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi on the set of “Summertime” in the Venice canals—will be the more compelling photographs.

The most monumental challenge for the entire production must have been deciding which films and cities to include. The process might have been to start with obvious movie-making epicenters (Los Angeles and New York) and then add more sensational places (Rome and Tokyo). Once the cities were determined, there would be the grueling, decision-making agony of selecting films. The editorial team likely engaged in lively discussions prefaced by, “We can’t make a book like this without including…” legendary locations such as: the window at Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn sips coffee with gloved hands; Griffith Park Observatory where James Dean’s rebellious life ends; and Mission San Juan Bautista where Hitchcock’s dizzy characters throw bodies off the bell tower.

Regardless of how the book was thrown together, the film selections are varied and showcase big-name directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Even taking into account that space dictated decisions, leaving out a film by François Truffaut for the Paris section is an unfortunate omission. While most of the films are of the wide-release sort, several obscure films are included, extending the book’s appeal to a wider audience. In Berlin, they feature “Run Lola Run” and in Havana, “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Location also manages to bring in a variety of film styles, including thriller (“Mission: Impossible”), romance (“Notting Hill”), music (“Amadeus”), sci-fi (“The Matrix”), documentary (“Buena Vista Social Club), and surreal (“La Dolce Vita”).

Overall, Location is a fun read and a great idea. Even if one of the films fell short at the box office or is not a particular favorite, learning about those involved in the background and the rationale behind filming at a particular location is interesting dinner table chatter. The authors did a solid job in their research and their passion for film, cities, architecture, and history comes together well. Location is a unique and valuable book for readers who are planning visits to any of its featured cities. After this book, readers will certainly look at the places it examines, be it an obscure ice cream stand or a crowded piazza, with newfound appreciation.

Inspiration by the Numbers

Fifty Great Escapes: A Global Guide to Creativity

by Jonathan LeePrestel, 2006
192 pages, paperback
250 color illustrations, $29.95

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

Jonathan Lee’s Fifty Great Escapes: A Global Guide to Creativity, from German publisher Prestel, is an impressively researched photo book that attempts to inspire readers by pinpointing exactly where fifty celebrated artists dashed off to in order to summon a masterpiece or two. In short, this book’s goal is to explore the concept of how sense of place affects creativity, which is in an important topic in the creative fields.

Lee has approached his concept thoughtfully, though hardly profoundly, and as a result Fifty Great Escapes has enough variety of locations and artists that many art-loving readers will find it enjoyable, but few will find it as remotely inspiring as the places listed in the book. Lee chooses his subjects from a grab-bag of artistic greats, with no apparent clear connection among them. He includes writers, photographers, composers, philosophers, filmmakers, and sculptors. He then probes the life of each artist to reveal the surreptitious places that aroused their innermost creative sparks.

While on a train ride, Claude Monet sees a picturesque village along the banks of the Seine River. Soon enough, he takes a house there, using it for the basis of a thirty-year study in gardens. Not surprisingly, Lee warns about the crowds at the Monet house and gardens in France. A Left Bank café in Paris is the hangout of Jean-Paul Sarte that inspired this writer and existential philosopher. Lee admits that today the café is a tourist trap, but he maintains the owners have kept the initial charm that drew the intellectual crowd decades ago. He credits Juwangsan National Park as the inspiration for South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. Pleading with the government for months to use the location, Ki-duk uses Jusan Reservoir, the park’s artificial lake, to shoot the entire film. It’s hard to determine if the lake was truly inspirational or just convenient for his production crew.

One problem with Fifty Great Escapes is that Lee often seems to stretch his underlying concept to round out the book in order to satisfy the “global” aspect of the subtitle. For example, just because Jorge Luis Borges frequented Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, it’s unclear if the great Argentine scribe of fiction was truly inspired by the place or if he just liked one of the waitresses who worked there. The spreads about longboard surfing photographer LeRoy Grannis in Hermosa Beach and Robert Capa’s tenure in France are particularly interesting for those of us working in photography. Still, these locations seem too obvious to be unusually inspirational. Lee might have painted himself into a corner trying to include a variety of locals.

Rightly so, Lee gives special thanks in his acknowledgment to picture researcher, Natalie Buchholz, “for her perseverance.” Since the 250 photographs are from so many different sources, she had a monumental job of securing permissions plus finding portraits of each artist, not to mention submitting appropriate images of the locations Lee is touting. While the photo research is impressive, Fifty Great Escapes suffers from a common problem with books that use numerous sources for imagery: lack of continuity in style. While some of the book’s visuals are quite nice, as a whole they end up being a disparate hodgepodge, and frankly, some of the images are unexciting and simply sub par technically. In addition, Buchholz provides several less-than-stunning generic photos from public institutions, presumably because of a limited budget.

Unlike the hit handbook, 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz (Workman, 2003), part of the problem with Fifty Great Escapes is that its title does not provide the author with a clear or compelling enough directive. Without reading the subtitle, the name first conjures up places where a lounge chair and a cool drink are certain to be waiting. And even calling it a “guide to creativity” doesn’t accurately prepare the reader for what this book is about. It’s more an attempt to recommend some popular points of interest around the globe and then tie that place to a famous artist.

There also doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason why Lee has divided his book into five sections: Inspiration, Creation, Big Break, Hell-raising, and Reinvention. These categories seem to have been added as an afterthought. The sections zigzag between disciplines, cities, and periods. The crammed design of the book packs in a lot of textual information. Fortunately, there are enough pages to allow for several images to run full page or as double spreads. As a bonus, each section ends with a “Where to Go” list of about twenty additional inspirational spots. These locations are not tied to particular artists but Lee provides brief descriptions that suggest activities appealing to various art disciplines.

An attempt to tap into the mind of an artistic genius by examining where they traveled is a very clever premise. It’s evident that Lee has done his homework and he gives us little-known facts that are insightful on their own. By reading Fifty Great Escapes, many a creative soul might be prompted to travel to a spot where a fellow artist found their juices flowing. But it seems unlikely that lightening would strike twice in the same place. All the same, Lee’s book does a fair job of deflecting us from the fact that the majority of the world’s creative legends most likely had their brightest idea in the middle of the night on the toilet.