David Lynch Returns to Philadelphia for Art and Film Exhibitions

David Lynch at his "The Unified Field" exhibition at PAFA in Philadelphia, PA
David Lynch at The Unified Field exhibition at PAFA in Philadelphia, PA

This week, David Lynch returned to his alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) for The Unified Field, a retrospective exhibition of his work as a painter, past and present. He also appeared at the Prince Theater with the Philadelphia Film Society for a chat discussing his work in cinema. I was lucky enough to attend both gatherings to speak with Lynch, and will hit yet another pre-opening of The Unified Field (with Lynch in attendance) before its official start on September 13.

The noted filmmaker’s aesthetic – darkly humorous, deeply obsessive, frighteningly sexual – stems from his initial works as a painter during his time in Philly. “I’m still primarily a painter,” says Lynch (he’s currently not working on any film projects). While there are recent paintings, lithographs and mixed media from the 2000s on hand, the majority of The Unified Field stems from his time in City of Brotherly Love and the school that drove him. Of particular interest is the assemblage that Lynch created for his short, animated film Six Men Getting Sick Six Times – a mossy garden with a charred blackened landscape – that occupies its own room in the exhibition.

Lynch has stated many times in the past that his stay in Philly – from 1965 to 1970, centered in and around PAFA, his apartment at 13th and Wood and a house near the 2400 block of Poplar – was the greatest influence on his work. During both conversations on Wednesday, Lynch reiterated that back then Philly was a city covered in the “beautiful patina” of soot (“literally, even the streets had soot on them”) and corroded by "the fear, insanity, corruption, filth and despair in the air, all swimming together.”

Rather than frighten or disgust him, Lynch was emboldened by Philly, and created works at PAFA based on what he took in, many of which remained in their archives until The Unified Field and its expansive 80+ piece exhibition of paintings, drawings and multimedia installations. “Philadelphia is percolating in me,” he said. When I asked him if it was strange that such a forward-thinking artist was looking backwards in this exhibition, he answered “no,” and said that “old works can spark new ones.”

While at PAFA, Lynch mentioned that he missed smoking in public and that he used to light up “all over this building” when he attended school. He enjoyed Federal Donuts’ chocolate malt donuts. He said he thought that the city of his youth had turned “normal now. Looks like every other city.” Lynch admitted to never watching television, unless he’s a hotel room (“I just saw a report about a woman getting punched in an elevator”), and copped to the fact that he knows little about art or music history.

At the Prince Theater, before a screening of his Lost Highway, Lynch enthused about his work with Louis CK on his television show on FX. “He writes beautiful letters. I don’t like to act…but he’s a pretty incredible guy.” When asked about what makes a great filmmaker or painter, Lynch stated that staying true to one’s vision is a must, and that “intuition is key. And knowingness - that’s so unbelievable that that exists.”


David Lynch: The Unified Field will be held from September 13 to January 11 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad Street. Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 AM to 5 PM; Sundays, 11 AM to 5 PM; Admission: Adults, $15; 60+ and college students, $12; youth (13-18), $8; children and military, free. For more information call 215.972.7600 or visit Pafa.org.

David Lynch Revisited, a retrospective of his films, is being presented through Philadelphia Film Society at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street; for more info visit Filmadelphia.org or PrinceMusicTheater.org/film/lynch. Tickets for PFS Lynch events are also available at the PFS Theater at the Roxy, 2023 Sansom Street, Phila, PA.

David Lynch (in suit) at PAFA 'The Unified Field' Press Preview in Philadelphia PA
David Lynch (in suit) at PAFA The Unified Field Press Preview in Philadelphia
Photos courtesy of PAFA

Posted on Friday, September 12, 2014