Art: David Lynch's Ways of Seeing

David Lynch is standing in the basement gallery of the Cartier Foundation in Paris, sipping a big cappuccino as he oversees the installation of "The Air is on Fire," a retrospective of his work (through May 27). The 61-year-old film director and artist is dressed in a crisp white shirt, black trousers and a long black smocklike coat that gives him the air of a mad scientist. His hair is tousled and wiry and a mix of metal tones, like much of his art. As he talks about having so much of his work on show—35 paintings, more than 150 photographs, dozens of drawings and film projections—a water pipe suddenly bursts in the ceiling, flooding the gallery. Visitors dive for cover and workers scramble for buckets. Yet Lynch remains calm, drinking his coffee. "Rain is supposed to be good luck," he says, looking at the water pouring from the ceiling. "And this is, in a way, rain."

That distorted view of life—turning what most might consider awful into something romantic and positive—pervades Lynch's work, from his feature films to his art. Though fans of such dark and disturbing movies as "The Elephant Man," "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Drive"—or the cult TV series "Twin Peaks"—may be surprised to know what a talented painter and photographer Lynch is, they will not be surprised by the jarring perspective in his work. "Look at this photograph," he says, pointing to a black-and-white picture of a cracked windowpane in an abandoned factory in Poland. "See how it broke?" The fracture is like a starburst, with a neat triangle of glass that fell out lying on the countertop, black as night. "It was just there—this incredible, beautiful thing," Lynch says.

The show came about when Cartier Foundation director Hervé Chandès visited Lynch at his Hollywood Hills studio in November 2005, following an introduction by a mutual friend. "I knew nothing of his painting and photography," Chandès says, "and when I saw it, I was bowled over. Lynch's art is a world that the public knows little about, and as a filmmaker he is autonomous. But when you put it all together, you see that he's an absolute artist. These are all parts of the creative process of David Lynch."

He has been an artist all his life. Born in Missoula, Montana, Lynch began drawing and painting during his itinerant youth: his father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the family moved often. "I drew at home, and there were many houses," he says, thinking back. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he made his first film, a one-minute loop called "Six Men Getting Sick." It is on view at the Cartier Foundation, along with other short films in a small theater inspired by his first feature, "Eraserhead."

His photos of abandoned factories in the United States, the U.K., Germany and Poland are especially striking, resembling the settings of some of his films. "These derelict factories have been reclaimed by nature and have such a beauty and patina, with all the filth, grease, oil, spillage," he says. "It's a world of opportunities." For another photo series, "Distorted Nudes," Lynch scanned pictures from a book called "1,000 Nudes" of women in boudoirs and brothels in the 1920s, then lopped off heads and limbs with Photoshop and stretched the shapes this way and that. The low-resolution quality of these highly erotic images gives them a dreamy feel, like what surrealist photographer Man Ray would have done if he'd had access to computers back in the 1930s.

Lynch is also an indiscriminate scribbler. He draws, he says, on "anything I can find": notebooks, scraps of paper, Post-Its, envelopes, airplane sickness bags and especially white paper napkins from Bob's Big Boy, a chain of restaurants in southern California. Lynch would go to Bob's regularly—for nearly eight years he went daily—drink milkshakes and lots of coffee and draw on napkins he pulled out of the silver metal dispensers. "They don't have the napkin dispensers anymore," he says ruefully. The drawings are graphic, like hieroglyphics. He'd like to produce some in other formats, such as lithographs or rugs. One, of a living-room interior, has been done up as a full-scale room at the Cartier Foundation, with colorful wallpaper and geometric print sofas. "I'd love to have a room like this," Lynch says with a laugh.

The most dramatic section of the show consists of large-scale pieces hung on immense curtains of burnt orange, slate blue or mustard yellow. "Curtains are magical because we want to know what is behind them, and when they are open we get to go into another world," says Lynch. The pictures themselves contain a mix of media, from computer graphics run off his Epson printer to three-dimensional elements like rosebuds, fiberglass, cotton, a knife and a pair of trousers. Some are deeply disturbing; "This Man Was Shot .9502 Seconds Ago" is a painting of a man with his guts spattering outward, his spirit rising from the matter to the heavens above. But Lynch, of course, doesn't see it that way. "It's romantic to me," he says. "It's a human world, an organic world and a bit of a wondering world." And above all, it's a Lynchian world.

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