Rubber baron

Painting and cinema are unique and separate. Painting is the most beautiful act of solitude; it's just you and the paint. The art of painting will always live.”

These words were spoken by the US film director David Lynch, at the recent opening of The Air is On Fire, a retrospective of his paintings, drawings, sculptures, film shorts and installations at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris. It is typical of Lynch to speak so sparsely about his creative work - he is famous both for giving little away and for the charming, quavering, midwestern drawl with which he gives that little away (“Jimmy Stewart from Mars”, Mel Brooks, executive producer of Lynch's film The Elephant Man, called him).

Lynch prefers to leave the characteristic “weirdness” of his films also unaccounted for. His weirdness has style, it is arty, Lynchian - what more explanation could be needed? Many of his films - Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - eschew narrative. Instead they focus on the perverse and the oblique. At times there is a storyline, at other times there isn't - either way, the ever-evasive Lynch is unwilling to elucidate much further than contrarily referring to them as “moving paintings”. Lynch fans who visit the Fondation Cartier will doubtless hope to achieve a better understanding of his films. But does his visual art give anything away?

Here is a clue: Lynch designed the whole exhibition himself. His bigger, more significant paintings hang in the glass-walled, ground-floor space, on steel frames draped in curtains. Down in the basement gallery his early short films are shown in a Lynch- designed mini cinema, next door to which he has built an expressionistic, plywood living room based on one of his tiny sketches. Loudspeakers emit Lynch sound - rumblings and drones composed with his long-time sonic collaborator Alan Splet. There is no curatorial information on the walls. This is a low key Lynchian atmosphere. He is in control.

Lynch's first creative outlet was painting. He has continued to paint, as well as work in other disciplines - drawing, photography, even furniture- making - and has amassed a formidable artistic oeuvre. It is no accident that such a grand show was conceived for Paris: the French appear to relish the sort of twisted Americana that Lynch specialises in, and he has received funding from France for recent films.

Born in Montana in 1946, the son of a research scientist for the US Department of Agriculture, Lynch had a happy childhood during the postwar boom - a time, as he calls it in the exhibition catalogue, of “euphoric, 1950s chrome optimism”. In 1966 he moved to Philadelphia, to study painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While Lynch, a true country boy, hated the city, it was there that his interest in the moving image began, when he observed one of his canvases wafting in a breeze.

Lynch bought a cheap movie camera and began to experiment with stop-motion animation - a tentative halfway house between still pictures and movies. Examples of this crude, archaic technique surfaced in his early shorts, some of which can be seen at the Fondation Cartier: Six Men Getting Sick (1967), an animated stop-motion film of six men vomiting, The Alphabet (1968), about a child's dread of letters, and The Grandmother (1970), a half-hour nightmare in which a lonely boy grows himself a grandmother from some seeds. Lynchian weirdness already in place, these were exercises for Lynch's first feature-length movie, the insanely original Eraserhead.

Eraserhead took five years to complete, and gained instant cult status upon its release in 1977. Made in Los Angeles, where Lynch now lives, the movie is set in an unnamed industrial wasteland to the relentless roaring and creaking of machinery; interiors are stark, cramped and harshly illuminated by naked light bulbs.

This was Lynch's own Philadelphia Story - the “city of brotherly love” becoming, in his interpretation, a loveless hellhole. (Eraserhead was one of Stanley Kubrick's favourite films - he reputedly screened it for the cast of his film The Shining, to get them “in the mood”.)

The eponymous Eraserhead is a man who dreams of his own head being decapitated and ground down to manufacture pencil erasers. As played by Jack Nance in a bad suit and a mushroom-cloud coiffure, he festers in a state of simmering agitation that intensifies when his girlfriend leaves him holding a very ugly baby. This perpetually mewling, repulsive creature is straight out of the Francis Bacon book of deformity (legend has it that it was made from the foetus of a cow).

In the early 1970s, during the long-drawn-out making of Eraserhead, Lynch discovered transcendental meditation, which freed him from “the suffocating rubber clown-suit of negativity”, as he referred to his anger and depression. He still meditates every day, and it is the spirit of Eraserhead that permeates this exhibition.

One series of photographs offers familiar, diffused views of disused factories. Another, the Distorted Nudes, are digitally hacked and blurred vintage pornographic photographs; they spookily evoke that vile child in Eraserhead. There are references to Lynch's other work, too. The gallery's walls are occupied by perfectly mounted, beautifully inconsequential doodles that include a drawing on the cover of Blue Velvet's screenplay, and scribbled- on napkins from Bob's Big Boy Diner, a regular haunt of Lynch's when filming.

The two other obvious influences on Lynch's art are Edward Hopper, whose sense of dislocation in the city suffuses both Lynch's films and paintings, and Francis Bacon, who Lynch describes in the exhibition catalogue as “my all-time favourite”. Bacon's imprint is everywhere: smudged faces, gaping mouths on otherwise featureless stalks, and, in his 2005 painting “Wajunga Red Dog”, Lynch borrows two Bacon leitmotifs - a white arrow and naked light bulbs (real ones, in this case).

The most impressive and significant works in the show are four recent paintings from 2003 to 2005. Each 10ftx6ft, they are glass-covered and gold-framed, (an idea inspired by a Francis Bacon show at London's Marlborough Gallery in the 1960s).

The titles themselves are Lynchian - scrawled on to the canvas in an infantile hand: “Do You Want to Know What I Really Think?” a fully dressed man inquires as he brandishes a flick knife at a virtually naked woman who sits in a bland Mulholland Drive- style room. In “This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago”, a man stands on a Hopperesque sidewalk in a crucifixion pose with his chest blasted out, his spirit ascending from the wound.

The characters that populate these big, mixed-media paintings are little more than sav- agely rendered clods of toffee-coloured mess - Bacon gone rancid - afforded a touch of humanity by wearing real clothes and holding real knives. These bigger pictures - cinematic in their scale - are quintessentially Lynchian in their juxtaposition of the morbid, the slick and the deadpan funny. While they loom too large for the Fondation Cartier space, and while their sumptuous framing jars with the more prosaic finish of some of his other works, they are the most successful pieces on display.

It is possible that - with Lynch having “done” cult, Hollywood and television - this exhibition is a sign that the director may now concentrate on painting. Whichever discipline he chooses, Lynch's ability to coolly disinter nastiness and weirdness from the depths of his psyche, in order to disturb the disturbable and wow the hip, is unlikely to be hampered.

The Air is On Fire is at Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Boulevard Raspail, Paris (00 33 42 18 56 50, www.fondation.cartier.fr) to 27 May.

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