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Mythmakers: Twin Peaks and Abstract Expressionism

Back back, keep going back til it gets darker and darker.

Surrealism maybe, but Twin Peaks and Abstract Expressionism? Surely that’s a stretch. But the more we look into AbEx, the more connections we find to Twin Peaks and to Lynch’s overall philosophy of art. We also know that when a subject or text is almost impossible to understand, we construct strange comparisons in an effort to see something new. Witch, Please podcast does this with Harry Potter characters and Dungeons and Dragons classes, and art historian James Elkins famously compares painting and alchemy. Elkins says he was inspired by Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism, where Bloom, a literary critic, who was sick of trying to explain poetry by means of the usual philosophy, finally turns to Jewish mysticism. Elkins: “[He] wrote a strange book introducing literary critics to the obscure medieval Hebrew words for the ineffable states of God. Part of the joy of Kabbalah and Criticism is seeing familiar names like Tennyson and Blake in the same sentence with words like hochmah and binah.”

Abstract

In this essay, I look at how Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) is a uniquely American art form stemming from Western art movements, Native American rituals, the materiality of the paint medium, and popular spiritual and psychoanalytic theories about art and consciousness. Its mostly white male creators in the 1940s and ’50s thought AbEx, like Surrealism, could help people get in touch with the elusive, mysterious “human subconscious,” where personal and cosmic knowledge was believed to be stored. Some thought the art movement even connected humans directly to an entity, or entities—whole environments—stranger yet more familiar than the conventional ones we know. Evocation occurred through action painting, pouring, dripping, staining, scraping, tearing, destroying, and, most importantly, enlarging.

Beware. It’s in the shadow of the Atom Bomb that both Abstract Expressionism and David Lynch were born. People at this time thought “getting in touch with the subconscious” meant getting in touch with the ‘Soul’ of the nation—the collective American super-conscious, which was, like Hawk’s map, very old but always current. The birth of this modern, extended, imagined, emergent yet imminent identity—the post-atomic Soul of America—is also what Twin Peaks is all about!

Diane sitting in a chair in the red room. Her face is missing and a gold seed floats in the air.
Manufactured Diane tulpa peeling away like paint to reveal a ‘black fire’ within.

We are like the painter who paints and then lives inside the paint.

“All I wanted to be was a painter.” David Lynch started making films and “film paintings” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts in the 1960s. This is when he had a visionary experience, a waking dream, standing in front of an almost all-black painting. From Lynch on Lynch (1997): “I am looking at this figure in the painting, and I hear a little wind, and see a little movement. And I had a wish that the painting would really be able to move, you know, some little bit. And that was it.” Then Lynch says he imagined a world “in which painting would be in perpetual motion…I was very excited and began to make films which looked like moving paintings, no more and no less.” 

Lynch’s first official film is of painter Bushnell Keeler sailing. Seems significant. His first multi-media “film painting” is of 6 Men Getting Sick (6 Times). This theme (people vomiting) looks forward to iconic scenes in The Return.  

Robert Cozzolino: “[Lynch’s] films are dependent on, flow from, and are inseparable from his identity as a painter; they are a painter’s films…” Can we read Lynch’s films as specifically Abstract Expressionist paintings? Can we use the language of painting, the language of AbEx, to talk about “what Twin Peaks is” the way James Elkins uses alchemy to talk about what painting is?

Top: a drawing of a man floating in a room. Bottom: Dale Cooper floating in the Glass Box.

Painting

Legendary AbEx art dealer Leo Castelli, who hosted an exhibition of Lynch’s paintings in 1989, says he was surprised by the work of this filmmaker, “because you don’t find this professional level in someone who does not devote all his time to painting and drawing.”

Lynch thinks through paint, and directs through painting pictures. His fingers scribble when he speaks because drawing/painting helps us think through problems. From Lynch on Lynch: “Painting is the one thing that carries through everything else.” Painting is his medium, his mother tongue, his modus operandi. Marta Lopera (2019) points this out by comparing a painting from 2009, Man Floating in Room Alone, to one of the best-known images from The Return: Cooper floating in the glass box. We also see references to Portrait of a Man by Francis Bacon, whose work is similar to AbEx. See other Bacon studies for a portrait.

Francis Bacon painting of a man floating in a box.

Man floating in a pool.
In a stroke of genius, Lopera also connects the scene of Cooper floating to the corpse floating in the opening of Sunset Blvd.

Francis Bacon and AbEx painters like William de Kooning (famous for the most expensive modernist painting ever sold) focus on distorting and fracturing the human figure. Even pure non-objective, anti-figural painters like Pollock, Rothko, and Newman evoke figures “within” their compositions. 

Some of them go dark. These paintings express a type of mind that moves, as Ernst van Alphen explains it, “away from the assertion of utopia and toward the recognition of horror.” Check out van Alphen’s book Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (1994). This may correlate with Carl Jung’s idea that true enlightenment involves a move away from “figures of light” and toward making the darkness conscious. Our Fear of the Dark: On Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’ Episode 101 of Weird Studies looks into the beauty, significance, and vivid colors of darkness that actually get lost in the modern world of too much light. 

In David Lynch: Beautiful Dark (2008) Greg Olson says exactly what we know in our hearts: “Lynch’s films are more like cinematic paintings than literary constructs, canvases vibrant with an action-painter’s abstract strokes of mood and atmosphere, bold splashes of surging grief, desire, fear, and love.” 

Puking is a theme in Twin Peaks, but so is disintegrating women into specific, painterly spaces. Van Alphen: “If de Kooning’s women and environments become one through the disintegration of the female figure, Bacon’s [and Lynch’s] figures and environment become one through the suggestion that the figure will absorb the space into itself. But it can only do this by giving up its boundaries and losing its selfhood.”

Perhaps this process of dis-and-re-integration is best described through the medium of painting.

White horse in the Red Room surrounded by darkness.

The Medium

Paint is slippery, protean, gooey, oily. It’s colored mud that can flow like water, honey, sap, or clay, but ultimately hardens (like amber) into a kind of stained glass. It’s heavy like stone, but it’s also light and transcendent, pure information, liquid thought, so radiant, so replete with expressive force, it has an almost psychic quality. Paint expresses ideas, gets into our heads and possesses or “occupies” the mind, as James Elkins puts it. Just the paint itself is so silky, so seductive, so utterly addictive, it can hold an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Twin Peaks can feel the same way. Sarah Nicole Prickett: “I resent it. It takes over my mind.”

What is this stuff? At the 2016 seminar Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition, (a major reference for this essay), Matt Saunders argued that the gooey, sticky, filmy core of the paint medium connects it to film and photography, and he reminds us that gooey paint is part of a production line that eventually delivers printed text, “the supply train behind words on a page.” Paint gives body to words. Saunders: “If we dig into any endeavor—into any medium—there’s often a gooey world lurking.” He also likens videos of printing ink production to porn.

AbEx painter Amy Sillman likens paint to drugs. In her essay On Color, Sillman compares paint to cocaine and to other expensive, precious substances like perfumes. Carol Armstrong, in the same publication, leans more into the watery, fluid quality of paint, and defines the medium through the lens of Helen Frankenthaler’s AbEx painting, Flood (1967): “as coloristic vividity and pure fluidity, what Luce Irigaray would call the (feminine) “mechanics of fluids,” a liquid pour that flows between chance and intention, where one color in its fluid state runs into and influences the contiguous flow of another.” That sounds kind of like Peaks. Elkins: “Painting is Alchemy. Its materials are worked without knowledge of their properties, by blind experiment, by the feel of the paint.”

And…

Action! 

A hand dripping blood onto the Red Room floor. Painting, like Twin Peaks, is more of a verb, a process, a discipline, even a creative or spiritual praxis related to praying, dancing, singing, and knowledge production. 

In Painting Beyond Itself, Sabeth Buchmann remarks on the relationship between dance, painting, and film, exposing how painting is more than goo and surface: it’s a “medium,” which she defines as a “process of moving and being moved.” The painting medium moves us, not just the other way around. We can use this definition to tie Twin Peaks to painting and to the even older “performing arts.” Alanna Thain likewise looks at Twin Peaks through the lens of dancing, which, like painting, uses what she calls temporal stretching or “heterochronicity” to offer an “alter-logic” that “exposes other modes of knowing and perceiving,” and Thain thinks this may be why the show’s iconic moments are often marked by dancing bodies.

The Great American Thing

In any case, in any medium, many Abstract Expressionist action painters in the 1940s and ’50s were self-proclaimed “mythmakers,” and shared a conviction to forge a new beginning for art. They were the leading-edge avant-garde (a military term), “pioneers” exploring the edges of the maps where the monsters live. They were also announcing the arrival of a new empire, America, one that needed avant-garde art to really sell its brand of cultural supremacy. This is also when the CIA and State Departments funded art shows around the world called Advancing American Art, because a few art shows can do more to win over populations than a thousand speeches.

The official version is that this new approach to painting was born from the great European traditions—Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, Impressionism, Futurism, Fauvism, Realism, German Expressionism (which AbEx gets its name from), Neoplasticism—all from Europe and Russia, all leading up to this magic American moment called Abstract Expressionism.

Sensation and Suprematism

Now we know better, that AbEx also came from the medicinal arts indigenous to Turtle Island, but we can still trace parts of AbEx’s origins to Malevich and Cézanne. Interesting things happen when we look at them next to Twin Peaks. Kazimir Malevich is famous for painting flat, black shapes, writing The Non-Objective World, and developing Suprematism, a type of painting meant to imply (or evoke) “primordial subjectivity” and “the supremacy of pure feeling”—which, it turns out, can be weird. “In Suprematism there is no echo of familiar reality.”

Paul Cézanne became famous for painting landscapes but rejecting traditional atmospheric and linear perspectives. Instead, he used flat planes (shapes) set on the surface in a grid, and figured out how to move the picture in and out of space by only using color. Cézanne called this effect his “little sensation” because he wanted to create the sensation of depth rather than the illusion of depth—psychological space rather than merely visual space. This sounds a lot like Twin Peaks.

Philosophers and neuroscientists argue that Cézanne’s art “breaks open the mind itself” and “exposes the process of seeing.” Twin Peaks. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer insists that Cezanne’s paintings represent “what reality looks like before it has been resolved by the brain.”

These early modernist paintings do look good! For Malevich, even a flat black shape has depth and shimmers with semiotic magic. In theory, it’s actually impossible to achieve ‘absolute flatness’ with painting. As Greenberg put it, “the first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness.” Still, it’s something to which artists devote themselves: flatness and narrative instability.

For Cezanne, the devotion to the flatness of the picture plane, and a desire to leave the images ‘unfinished’ and ‘open’ helped his paintings achieve depth and flatness at the same time, a visual paradox, a coincidentia oppositorum that art historians also claim emphasizes the “subjectivity” in painting. Olson describes Lynch’s filmmaking in a similar way: “Lynch’s modus operandi remains that of a painter, treating a film set like an unfinished canvas that he’s still actively adding to, as the work develops via intuition and experimentation rather than detailed planning.” It’s completely counter-intuitive to the Western tradition built on “detailed planning.” 

A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.

― Mark Rothko

Lynch: “The story is the thing.” This new art movement gave painters like Lynch permission to improvise, to obsess with materials, to play in the paint. The spirit was to celebrate the nature of the paint medium itself, not what it could imitate. Artists could make better paintings when they didn’t have to make a picture of a thing—traditional mimesis­—but instead got to make the painting itself the thing. This was a huge shift in thinking (what else was going on in the mid-1940s?) but it was also a conscious rip-off of Indigenous art principles.

All-Over

By distributing focal points throughout the composition, Cézanne arguably made the first all-over painting. Further, the flattening effect was reinforced through the surface of the paint. Paint strokes were left behind (early action painting), and parts of the raw canvas peek through, pulling the viewer and the drama to the same place: the surface. We avoid getting lost in a ‘hole in the wall,’ but we also get a whole new hole inside: the artwork penetrates us, not the other way around. Paintings went from pulling us in to pushing us back.

The beholder becomes beheld. The curtain at the window closes and the body is back in the spotlight. To illustrate this idea, art critic Dave Hickey (2009) talks about a shift in illusory spaces painted between the 16th century and 17th century found at the Kimbell Art Museum as a shift from the “feminine space” of an open picture plane to the “masculine space” of a closed picture plane. In other words, there is a shift from yonic space to phallic space, from space that invites to space that invades.

And this is all part of the grand evolution of European/American painting, and why Cézanne and Malevich are marked as fathers of what historian Wanda Corn calls “The Great American Thing.”

Ritual and Myth

What’s missing? “I haven’t found any Indians.” In spite of what Clement Greenberg and the CIA were pushing, artists in what is currently called the United States understood that a new kind of painting would be more ‘authentic’ if it borrowed from Native American sources instead of European ones. Even though the Indigenous peoples weren’t considered citizens until 1924, and couldn’t legally practice their religions until 1978, and were categorically “other,” and “primitive,” and “should be totally annihilated,” to quote Wizard of Oz writer Frank Baum, their cultures and stories were quickly picked up and employed to serve as a legitimate claim to cultural supremacy, to Americanness, to the soul of the nation.

In his essay “Ritual and Myth,” art historian W. Jackson Rushing explains that artists and Abstract Expressionism “knit together primitivizing, modernist, and nationalist goals into a peculiarly American artistic discourse.” Popular New York painters like Jackson Pollock (with his drip) and Bernet Newman (with his zip) gravitated heavily towards the study of Native American rituals, and this footnote should be the headline. Jackson Pollock says that he learned to drip paint onto the ground after watching Navajo sand painters demonstrate the technique at the MOMA 1941 exhibition, Indian Art of the United States. He would later report that he swore he witnessed a sand painting as a child, but that is very unlikely considering that the Navajo healing ceremony is never open to outsiders. There was a fake one featured in an episode of The X-Files years later, however.

Jackson Pollock drawing next to Pueblo pottery patterns.
A page from Pollock’s sketchbook, 1943, and the Hohokam ancient Pueblo Kokopelli pottery exhibited at the MOMA in 1941.

Pollock’s first major non-objective painting Mural (for Peggy Guggenheim), a turning point in American art, “the first outstanding, large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America,” was really a remix of Hohokam pottery paintings of the deity Kokopelli. Robert Genter, in Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America, points out that after Pollock’s life-changing experience at the MOMA exhibition, he purchased dozens of books on Native American art that offered him countless “ritual images” he could appropriate and transform.

Pollock's Mural juxtaposed with Kokopelli patterns.

Rock Art

That same year, 1941, Pollock mixed sand and paint to create The Magic Mirror, which Rushing notes has a faded and textured surface very much like the replicas of Barrier Canyon pictographs also exhibited at the MOMA Native American art show. Rock art and Twin Peaks also relate in a number of ways.

Scene from Part 8 and part of the Barrier Canyon panel at Canyonlands National Park.
Silhouettes of dark figures from Part 8 and the Barrier Canyon panel at Canyonlands National Park.

Rushing calls these AbEx American painters “myth-makers” because they believed they were (and maybe they really were) tapping into the deep structures of the United States unconscious. Rushing adds that they all shared a tendency to depict ritual violence or inherently violent myths, “as well as an archaism exemplified by biomorphic forms and, often, coarse surfaces.” Lynch loves biomorphic forms and coarse surfaces! “I like to cut into the things.”

AbEx draws from Native American rock art because of its masterly treatment of flat spaces, and for its ability to contain or represent time travel. Most rock art contains layers of artistic activity from different prehistoric and historic periods, sometimes thousands of years apart. Images, and people, overlay and speak to each other in the crumpled “heterochronic” time and space of the painting. Painting is a special medium because of its ability to layer time like this.
The stories revealed through the surfaces of rock art, the ‘purest painting,’ also resonate with Jungian theories of the “stratification of human consciousness.” Jung wrote that “through the buried strata of the individual we come directly into possession of the living mind of ancient culture,” and that it is through putting on this ancient yet “living mind” that we “win that stable point of view outside our own culture, from which, for the first time, an objective understanding of their mechanisms would be possible.”
This notion is echoed in Claude Levi-Strauss’s Pioneer Zone (1955) when he says that, “The work of the painter […] like the myths and symbols of the savage, ought to be seen by us, if not as a superior form of knowledge, at least as the most fundamental and the only one really common to us all; scientific thought is merely the sharp point—more penetrating because it has been whetted on the stone of fact, but at the cost of some loss of substance—and its effectiveness is to be explained by its power to pierce sufficiently deeply for the main body of the tool to follow the head.”
These essentialist, modernist, transcendental universal narratives also coincided with ideas about hierarchical stages of consciousness—of developmental stages from infancy to elderhood and beyond. We can look at Jean Gebser’s stages of consciousness, each new stage marked by an ability to take on a new perspective, to “transcend but include” the previous stages, as Ken Wilber puts it. Gebser would say that the paintings of Cezanne and Malevich (and Lynch) visualize a “momentous leap” from one tier of human consciousness to another.

Conclusion

Like paint, Twin Peaks is a medium, a medium each one of us can collaborate with to express our own dreaming subconscious, get in touch with Native American rituals (real and imagined), and maybe even get in touch with other-than-human entities and psychedelic “mind-revealing” environments. If we want to better understand Lynch’s interiority and his use of symbols in Twin Peaks, we ought to know a little bit about the historic painting movement that helped configure his art praxis.

White specks floating on a black background.

Red flecks floating on purple ocean background.

“Back back, keep going back til it gets darker and darker.”

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