REVIEW: David Lynch Naming @ mima, Middlesbrough | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Review: Maxine Davies

“What’s in a name?” mused Shakespeare’s Juliet in the sixteenth century, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” For Juliet, naming is an artificial and ultimately meaningless convention. For David Lynch, however, the process of naming is quite complex; the image invoked by what something is called and what it represents are often at odds with each other. That is the overarching theme of David Lynch Naming, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s latest high-profile exhibition. Best known for his work in film and television, with dark and surreal films such as Blue Velvet and Eraserhead and the iconic television series Twin Peaks, Lynch originally studied painting at the Boston Museum School and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Whilst the links between his work in the cinema and his fine art are clear, Lynch deserves to be seen as a visual artist as well as a filmmaker and the work merits being seen as an achievement in its own right.

Naming was curated by Brett Littman, executive director of The Drawing Centre in New York, initially shown in Los Angeles, California, and arrived at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art as a result of a partnership between the two institutions. mima curator Alix Collingwood says that curating Naming was mostly about linking together reoccurring motifs; due to the surreal nature of the works, mima didn’t want to over-curate or try to influence the way that they are interpreted. The audience has to engage with Lynch’s work and ask questions themselves about the issues it raises for them. She explains that the exhibition is laid out in broadly chronological order, beginning with Lynch’s 1968 work The Alphabet, a short film combining live action and animation where letters grow from the ground and float in from the sky. The exhibition then sees Lynch’s deadpan photographs of urban landscapes alternated with playful paintings, prints and drawings.

The influences of Surrealism are abundantly clear. Lynch’s paintings utilise a naïve, redolent style evocative of the primitive quality the Surrealists admired as a result of their fascination with accessing mind’s subconscious, the id. There are imprints of words that were never written, the paper is often sliced and the paint smudged or billowing like smoke where the water has caused it to spread on the page. The nightmarish quality of Lynch’s work is enhanced by the fact that, with the exception of The Alphabet, Naming consists entirely of works in monotone; blacks and pale smoke greys speak to Lynch’s heavy focus on the industrial landscape and recall the motif of the factory.

A notable element of Naming is the absence of human beings with in the works. The photographs depict derelict buildings, diners, factories and store fronts, all with some evidence of words within the frame. In contrast to the childlike quality of Lynch’s paintings, the photographs are cool, precise and impassive. Surprisingly, they are often also quite funny. One photograph from the Untitled series, (Industrial, New York 0186:33) 1999-2000, shows an abandoned factory with a sign proclaiming it the ‘HOME OF CHAMPION’; the contrast between the dilapidated building and the signage producing an ironic humour that Lynch often employs in his works for the screen. In this way, Naming, Lynch’s work more broadly, and, for anyone who has seen him in interview, even Lynch himself (how can someone who tackles such dark, heavy themes have such an unbelievably chipper demeanour?!) are thoroughly postmodern.

It seems oddly relevant that Naming should be exhibited at mima, given the deeply ingrained legacy of industry in the region. The ties between the exhibition and the location make Naming even more of a coup for mima.

David Lynch Naming runs until the 25th March 2015 at Middlesbrough’s mima.

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