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The art life of David Lynch in Madison

Tandem Press showcases “Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch,” now through October 28, with a gallery reception and screening of “David Lynch: The Art Life” on September 23.
A photo collage depicting the title screen from the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (top left), a close-up of the artist smoking a cigarette and staring into space (top right), and a wide view of the exhibition Enigma: The Prints of David Lynch at the Tandem Press Apex Gallery (bottom).
A photo collage depicting the title screen from the documentary “David Lynch: The Art Life” (top left), a close-up of the artist smoking a cigarette and staring into space (top right), and a wide view of the exhibition “Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch” at the Tandem Press Apex Gallery (bottom).

Tandem Press showcases “Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch,” now through October 28, with a gallery reception and screening of “David Lynch: The Art Life” on September 23.

Filmmaker, photographer, philanthropist, writer, musician, composer, commercial director, actor, sound designer, father, furniture designer, Eagle Scout, printmaker, sculptor, painter, cartoonist, club designer, coffee roaster, quinoa cook, weathercaster, and transcendental meditation teacher.

At one time or another, David Lynch could claim all of these titles. The versatile artist has always kept an open mind about exploring new avenues of expression, while pushing the boundaries of every medium he touches and remaining true to his dark, fantastic vision. In a conversation with Lynch included in the book The Prints Of David Lynch, Kristine McKenna asks the artist, “Which of your work reveals you most completely?” Lynch answers simply, “All of it.”

In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary announced the inclusion of the word “Lynchian,” which is defined as “characteristic, reminiscent, or imitative of the works of David Lynch.” It adds: “Lynch is noted for juxtaposing surreal or sinister elements with mundane, everyday environments, and for using compelling visual images to emphasize a dreamlike quality of mystery or menace.” So, it feels strangely appropriate to attend a local exhibition of visual works created by Lynch in a historic roundhouse building amidst a desolate industrial landscape on the outskirts of the city. 

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Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch, on display at Tandem Press through October 28, showcases a selection of fine art prints that Lynch produced in Madison between 1998 and 2021. (Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.) In conjunction with a reception for Enigma on Friday, September 23, starting at 5 p.m., Tandem Press will also host an outdoor screening of the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), co-directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm. The movie screening will begin at 7 p.m. on the lawn in front of the Apex building where Tandem is located on the North Side. Guests are encouraged to bring blankets or chairs.

A self-supporting printmaking studio affiliated with the Art Department in the School Of Education at UW-Madison, Tandem Press was founded in 1987. Director of Tandem Press Paula McCarthy Panczenko, in an introduction to The Prints Of David Lynch, states, “it has been our main objective to invite artists working in other media to experiment with printmaking.” When Lynch was initially asked to be an artist-in-residence at Tandem in 1997, he had not made a print since he attended art school. Lynch eagerly accepted Tandem’s offer, which afforded him a unique opportunity to experiment. He compares printmaking to painting as “a process of discovery of action and reaction.” In his conversation with McKenna, Lynch describes the attraction of printmaking: “I use this machine that jams that ink into paper that’s a quarter of an inch thick, so there’s a beautiful marriage of materials that can’t be achieved any other way.” 

Much like filmmaking, printmaking is a highly collaborative process. Lynch worked closely with Tandem master printers Andy Rubin and Bruce Crownover and a group of graduate students to create several monotypes, editioned prints, and photogravures. Lynch returned to the studio in the summers of 1998, 1999, and 2001, and worked with the press remotely from 2007 to 2008.

David Lynch's "Untitled (#26)," a 1999 monoprint on hand-made paper that depicts the intricately patterned deep impression of a distorted chicken face with real blood at the edges.
David Lynch’s “Untitled (#26),” a 1999 monoprint on hand-made paper that depicts the intricately patterned deep impression of a distorted chicken face with real blood at the edges.

By all accounts, Lynch left the imprint of his eccentric personality on Tandem. During my recent visit to the studio, Curator Sona Pastel-Daneshgar shared several interesting anecdotes about Lynch’s time there. Staff members recall the artist arriving at the studio each day in suits or pressed shirts, always looking very dapper. He required fresh coffee every 20 minutes while he was working. For one of Lynch’s more outré experiments in the workshop, he unexpectedly requested chicken heads. Inquiries were made and the UW-Madison College of Agricultural & Life Sciences just happened to have fresh chickens on hand that day. Lynch used the heads to create untitled monoprints by inserting them into a hydraulic printing press and making a deep impression on thick hand-made paper. This particular printing press, manufactured by the Dake Corporation, was his favorite, so he painted over the letters “DAKE” to form his initials: “DKL.”

David Lynch's favorite DAKE hydraulic printing press that he rebranded with his own initials by coloring in the "A" and part of the "E" to form "DKL" (for David Keith Lynch). Photo by Jason Fuhrman.
David Lynch’s favorite DAKE hydraulic printing press that he rebranded with his own initials by coloring in the “A” and part of the “E” to form “DKL” (for David Keith Lynch). Photo by Jason Fuhrman.

While he was there, Lynch also observed how important music was to the printmakers in the studio. But the sound system did not meet his standards. After his last visit to Tandem Press in the 2000s, he purchased a brand new Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 4000 sound system online and had it sent to the studio. He did not know the color of the speakers and later called to find out. (They were blue, naturally.) Lynch’s donated sound system remains in use at the workshop to this day.

In the summer of 2020, Tandem reached out to Lynch about a new collaboration. At the time, COVID-19 restrictions prevented Tandem from inviting artists to work in the studio in person. Lynch agreed to do a collaboration through the mail instead. Borrowing source images from the book 1000 Nudes: A History Of Erotic Photography From 1839-1939, Uwe Scheid Collection, Lynch created 12 images of distorted nudes using image manipulation software—the first time he has done so. The altered images were then used to produce photogravure plates for printing. Typically, Tandem staff make their own plates for printmaking at Tandem. In this case, however, they enlisted the services of expert intaglio platemaker Lothar Osterburg, who created copper photogravure plates from the images. (Osterburg also created the plates for Lynch’s previous Tandem series Untitled one-six in 2008.) Once the plates were completed, he shipped them to Tandem and collaborative printmaker Joe Freye printed the 12 editions over three months.

Part of the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 4000 sound system that Lynch bought and donated to Tandem Press. On the left, a CD and cassette player (with Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" and "No Alternative" compilation); and, on the right, one of the blue speakers. Photos by Jason Fuhrman.
Part of the Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 4000 sound system that Lynch bought and donated to Tandem Press. On the left, a CD and cassette player (with Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” and “No Alternative” compilation); and, on the right, one of the blue speakers. Photos by Jason Fuhrman.

Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch focuses on this most recent series of prints, titled Distorted Nude Photogravure #1-#12. In these 12 prints, as Tandem Press describes, “deformed nude figures contort, bend, reach, and pose within strange environments that, while mostly unclearly defined, appear to be domestic spaces. The images sink into a deep velvety black square.” The exhibition also includes a series from 1999 depicting “burnt desert shrubs,” a series from 2008 of unaltered, close-up nudes, and a few collographs from 1998 that incorporate ambiguous text. “The Second Angel,” a large piece that has never been exhibited before, faces the entrance to the studio and allows guests to see the coarse textures that are ordinarily concealed by glass. 

The predominantly monochromatic exhibition parallels Lynch’s cinema insofar as the meaning of the work remains obscure, but the power of his images cannot be denied. Lynch’s films compel audiences to watch differently—they often feel like paintings that are meant to be experienced, rather than explained. Similarly, the recurring motifs, rich symbolism, and dreamlike textures of his prints imbue the work with a distinctively narrative quality. The strange images in succession encourage one to think of stories as they brush the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind.


Screening David Lynch: The Art Life alongside the reception for the Engima exhibition feels like the perfect pairing. The documentary plainly demonstrates how Lynch has always been a tactile artist while he manipulates various materials with his bare hands and leisurely performs manual labor. It certainly makes sense that the hands-on process of printmaking would appeal to Lynch.

As the artist candidly speaks about his past from his remote residence in the Hollywood Hills, The Art Life seamlessly interweaves archival footage, old photographs, close-up images of his paintings and drawings, excerpts from two early underground short films, and scenes of him working in his studio. This innovative, collage-like documentary offers valuable insights into Lynch’s life and creative process, while conveying the essential purity of his artistic vision. At once a singular look at the inner world of an elusive artist, an entrancing meditation on the complex relationship between life and art, an inspired tribute to its subject, and a bold work of experimental cinema in its own right, The Art Life should be required viewing for all Lynch fans.

Nguyen, Barnes, and Neergaard-Holm concentrate exclusively on Lynch while he shares select memories spanning approximately 30 years. In chronological order, the artist discusses his family background, his early childhood in idyllic suburban Idaho, some traumatic encounters, his troubled adolescence in Virginia, his passion for painting, his experiences at art school, and the origins of his filmmaking career, among other topics. The Art Life paints an intimate, fascinating portrait of Lynch as an exceptionally focused individual who remains faithful to his ideas and genuinely does not seem to mind what anyone thinks of him. Its title refers to Lynch’s variation on The Art Spirit, a book by the American realist painter Robert Henri that he was exposed to at a young age in the 1960s. Early in the film, Lynch summarizes his personal conception of what he designates “the art life”: “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint, and that’s it.”

In one of The Art Life‘s most illuminating moments, Lynch tells an anecdote about a mysterious and perturbing occurrence one night in Boise. Lynch and his brother, John, were outside when a naked woman with a bloodied mouth inexplicably emerged from the shadows and crossed the street. She was crying and obviously in distress, but Lynch felt powerless to help her, as he was merely a little boy. Given Lynch’s predilection for loose narrative threads and unexplained phenomena in his films, this vivid fragment provides a vital clue to the essence of Lynch’s art. (The director was probably attempting to re-enact this event in Blue Velvet when Isabella Rossellini’s character Dorothy Vallens materializes on a lawn at night, bruised and naked.) 

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The documentary presents another key to the artist’s world when Lynch describes an epiphany that served as the catalyst for his foray into filmmaking. At the time, Lynch was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he had a private cubicle set up in a painting studio. He was working on a canvas of mostly black, but with “some green plant and leaves coming out of the black.” As he sat back to smoke a cigarette and contemplate the painting, he heard the sound of wind flowing from it and the green started moving. “Oh, a moving painting, but with sound,” Lynch thought. Needless to say, the idea lodged itself in the artist’s psyche.

While few of Lynch’s films are actually mentioned in the documentary, The Art Life emphasizes the myriad intricate connections between his various pursuits, and suggests that cinema represents just one facet of his vision. The extended wordless sequences of Lynch’s creative activities immerse the viewer in the daily rhythms of his fine-art practice, while revealing a dedicated artist who is clearly in his element when he’s working and experimenting. 

Far from demystifying or elucidating Lynch’s art, The Art Life deepens the mystery of his process and heightens our appreciation of his peerless oeuvre, as well as the spirit he embodies. Throughout his life, Lynch has steadfastly attempted to transcend any limits to his imagination and he continues to be productive as ever at the age of 76. Nguyen, Barnes, and Neergaard-Holm’s film serves as not only a complement to Lynch’s output, but also a testament to the possibility of dissolving the boundaries between life and art.

Taken together, The Art Life and Enigma: The Prints Of David Lynch present a more complete picture of this unconventional, multifaceted creator, while enabling spectators to dive deeper into his world. Thanks to Tandem Press and its curatorial acuity, Madison residents and visitors have a unique opportunity to engage with Lynch’s vision in a new way and explore his special relationship to our small corner of the universe.

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