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I’m Not Your Babe: “Alejandro” and the Gaga Narrative

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I’m Not Your Babe: “Alejandro” and the Gaga Narrative

Six months ago, in my first piece on Lady Gaga, I asked, “Is this the real her? Have we reached peak Gaga?” Since then, the Lady has continued her conquest of all media, guesting on Oprah and Ellen while taking time to install herself as performance art at the Los Angeles MOCA, right before having an apocalyptic duet with Sir Elton John and jetting off to receive accolades from the Queen of England. Meanwhile, her fans worldwide are responding with tribute videos and performances—everyone from middle school phenoms to the 82nd Airborne Division. She has the most-viewed YouTube video in history and Time Magazine has called her one of the most influential people in the world. Oh yeah, and she has her own comic book. If this isn’t the definition of “peak Gaga,” then I don’t know what is.

But what’s the answer to the first question? What’s the real Gaga? Personal narratives tend to be fascinatingly difficult to unravel; as mainstream sources confront the Gaga narrative looming in front of them, each tries to wrestle with what she really means. In primetime television, Gossip Girl rushed to be the first in line with a performance from The Fame Monster while mumbling something trite about “a satirical commentary on fame, glamour, and our society’s obsession with the shiny new thing.” Glee recently had a more nuanced take, locating Gaga at the intersection of theatricality, identity politics, and personal expression. (They also had the insight to stage an acoustic version of “Poker Face” between a daughter and her estranged mother, giving a whole new meaning to the line, “I won’t tell you that I love you, kiss or hug you.”)

Others are trying to write their own version of the Gaga narrative. Music producer Rob Fusari’s recent $30 million lawsuit against Gaga is, at face value, primarily about fees and financial compensation. However, the subtext of the suit is positioning Fusari in the public record as the architect of Gaga’s rise. While tacitly agreeing with most of the commonly accepted facts of the performer’s public biography, the text of the suit paints a picture of an impressionable “Italian girl ’guidette’” that Fusari took under his wing and molded into the star we know today. Fusari claims he was looking for “a dynamic female rock n’ roller with garage-band chops to front an all-girl version of the Strokes,” and though Stefani Germanotta failed at that, Fusari saw a pop star in the making and took a chance on her. He even lays claim to christening Gaga as Gaga; those two precious syllables come from the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.” (Gaga has credited Fusari for the name in the past; though now when asked about it, she gives the vague answer that it was a nickname given to her by “friends.”) From the leaked details of the suit, one gets the feeling that the money doesn’t matter; Fusari wants the world to know that he “made” Gaga.

This is, of course, slightly at odds with the dominant image and history of Gaga: a perhaps slightly mad artistic genius who quotes Lorca, Rilke, and Marx, who dropped out of college to troll the underbelly of the New York club scene in her underwear and setting things on fire, who gave up cocaine to become addicted to her work. It would be pat to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s telling that Gaga’s origin is already up for debate like some kind of legendary creation myth.

But Gaga doesn’t want to be a legend (at least while she’s alive), so it’s intriguing to see the turns the Gaga story has taken of late. We can see it in the way news articles about her Monster Ball Tour seem to take on the role of letters from doting parents, worrying every time she shows evidence of exhaustion on her marathon of a tour. It’s in how she turned a Berlin sex club into her own little confessional. It’s in the way she recently revealed that she’s tested borderline-positive for lupus. These all point to a humanizing of Gaga, of reducing the emotional distance between her and the world.

Although this is undoubtedly refined by Gaga’s publicity machine, it’s an impulse that springs organically from a dialogue between the singer and her fans. Gaga, behind her masks and glasses and costumes and veneer of slick pop, is an enigma. So even the briefest glimpse of humanity, a little peek at the woman behind the curtain, is all it takes to forge an emotional bond that’s both illusory and real at the same time. Gaga, like other savvy artists before her, understands that pop is about the resolution of binary oppositions. It’s about the fusion of high aesthetics with base passion, about the creation of a singular emotional experience for an individual fan—and then repeating that experience millions of times over.

But there seems to be one binary that eludes Gaga. The only time you can get her flustered is to prod her on the topic of sexuality. When Barbara Walters asked her point blank, “Have you had sex with women?” she was left speechless and stammering. In his interview with Gaga, Larry King tripped over himself to ask, “Are you with men more or women more?” and Gaga tripped over herself to give the non-answer, “I’m looking for love just like everyone else.”

Of course, Gaga responds like practically anyone would when the issue’s put so bluntly. Interviewers and critics feel that she’s fair game for these questions like she’s the avatar of decades of gender and queer theory. Our impulse is to categorize her and put her in a box. We know her aesthetic is sexually charged, and pop stars selling sex is a concept we can understand. But while Gaga’s sexual imagery is at times alien, aggressive, theatrical, and raw, it’s rarely titillating for its own sake. Perhaps we think that if we know what Gagasex is all about, it’ll all make sense. Gaga is (rightfully) loathe to give us these kinds of answers.

And we’re unlikely to find them in the video for “Alejandro,” a bizarre and beautiful cocktail of fetish and fascist imagery that has quite a bit of bared flesh and simulated sex on display but seems to speak to something else. Released from the narrative constraints of Gaga’s other recent videos, “Alejandro” washes the viewer in a sea of pure image and kinetic motion, and is all the more glorious for it.

Gaga has called the video “a celebration of my love and appreciation for the gay community, my admiration of their bravery and their love for one another.” It’s intriguing how this is expressed through leather and latex, and through choreography that’s aggressive and militant. It frames its sexual issues as a violent struggle, ricocheting between repression and anarchy. The clip uses the iconography of dominance and submission, and conflates the fascist and the religious. When she’s not a begoggled ice queen in a tower watching her men parade around in military review, she’s clad in St. George’s Cross (the Gaga Cross?), preaching to us while the hellfire from a riot rages behind her. (Also, the things she does with rosary beads are unlikely to win back friends at her old Catholic high school.)

Gaga has deployed fascist imagery before; one of her outfits in “Lovegame” paid homage to Charlotte Rampling’s Nazi attire in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter. The aesthetic in “Alejandro,” however, is dominated by it, from the stark red, white, and black palette to the violent bondage games enacted atop military bunks. The opener sets the tone, with the titles slamming into the viewer like irrefutable propaganda while the smoky half-lit shots of weary soldiers in a lounge recall the chilling sexuality (and Nazis) of Cabaret.

Undoubtedly, this is due to the influence of Gaga’s collaborator, director Steven Klein. The video is a seamless marriage of the pair’s styles, with Klein’s own grace notes such as a golden handgun finding a home beside Gaga’s. As a photographer, Klein has worked with Madonna countless times, and while some sequences in “Alejandro” may feel vaguely “Vogue,” a more immediate inspiration comes from Klein’s own work in W Magazine, where model Lara Stone exerted sexual dominance over a squad of schoolboys in bowl cuts.

Gaga and Klein draw greatly on the German Expressionist tradition; light and shadow control the space, and they manipulate the geometric and stylized backgrounds. In one shot, the environment is oppressive and overbearing, pushing through the frame onto the characters; in the next, it recedes to nothingness, allowing Gaga and her dancers to play their games on an infinitely sprawling empty stage. In just one of many indelible surreal moments, Gaga and her entourage march through a snowstorm; the men are pallbearers while Gaga is out in front carrying a human heart that is pierced and pinioned with the letter “A.”

With her bobbed hair, expressive eyes, and pursed crimson lips, Gaga seems to be channeling Dietrich or Garbo: icy and remote, yet with a beckoning sexuality corralled by authority and power. Rather than being the energetic driving force or the object of desire, Gaga hides in the shadows and looks out and down. She’s not the one being watched this time; she’s the voyeur.

Of course, the hierarchy and order at the beginning of the video collapses into an anarchic mass of writhing bodies and torn clothes, as the men all swarm her. The scene is sexually charged, but it’s hard to attribute these elements to sexual fantasy: she begins the song with the lines, “I know you that you may love me, but I can’t just be with you like this anymore,” and the video ends with her lying in repose, separated from a man (Alejandro?) and as chaste as a woman in a latex nun’s habit can possibly be.

If this video is a tribute to and celebration of the gay community, it serves as a mystery play. Gaga takes on the role of the oppressor, writing onto herself the iconography of control—religious, political, and military, complete with her assault rifle brassiere—and is then symbolically purged by pure sexual force. Unlike the juicy but scattershot “Telephone,” all the elements of “Alejandro,” down to the way the light audibly glints off a man’s sunglasses, seamlessly click into place. It’s a struggle for identity, told through sex, violence, and violent sex. Perhaps it doesn’t give us any more insight into the “real Gaga,” but it does give us another peek behind the curtain.

Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)


MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.


Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.


Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.


Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cinematography
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions

Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

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Someone Is in My House

Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.

Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”

Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.

To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)

Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.

However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.

Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.

David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.

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