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David Lynch, Manchester International Festival review: dive inside a great director's deranged mind

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'Her Shadow Began to Change and Then it Happened': a 2018 artwork by David Lynch
'Her Shadow Began to Change and Then it Happened': a 2018 artwork by David Lynch Credit: David Lynch

Even if you didn’t know that David Lynch started out as an artist, it would come as no surprise. Films such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive have a visual life of their own: they break the rules of conventional film language in ways so idiosyncratic and indefinably “abstract” that they still startle decades on.

Lynch, who studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, has kept his art and film careers going side by side over five decades. But a show of over 60 works at Manchester’s HOME gallery is Britain’s first proper chance to see what his art looks like and how it relates to his films. Anyone looking for insights into the mind that produced Twin Peaks and The Elephant Man won’t be disappointed.

The opening lithograph, Dark Deep Darkness (2009), feels like a manifesto for the Lynch vision: a sort of poem describing a man with long arms (a Lynchian trope) who sees “splendor all around”, yet “reaching out into the deep darkness he saw himself”. That man, you’re in no doubt, is Lynch, while the quality of the handwriting – significantly – is nothing like as crudely spontaneous as it first appears.

Where Lynch’s films are conventionally and rather lazily described as “surrealist”, his paintings actually look, certainly at first glance, like proper pieces of surrealism. In Bob Finds Himself in a World For Which He Has No Understanding, 2000, one of several three-metre wide works on strips of stained and charred cardboard, the eponymous character – a mass of grungy, not-quite-decipherable matter with a doll’s arm sticking out of it – proceeds through a forest (a key Lynchian symbol) of actual branches, strung with charred doll’s heads, with the painting’s title gouged into the dark sky beyond.

Bob, of course, is the demonic killer in Twin Peaks, and he recurs throughout the exhibition as a kind of vulnerable alter-ego to Lynch himself, who is punished in Mister Redman, 2000, for “unproductive thinking” – as is scrawled on the painting – by having to meet the dread figure of the title, whose root-like limbs emanate from an amorphous mass of resin laden with dice, the symbol of chance.

'Bob Finds Himself in a World for Which He Has No Understanding' (2000) Credit: David Lynch

But we get our most convincing sense of entering Lynch’s mind in an extraordinary series of minutely detailed drawings on matchbook covers, produced in the early Seventies when he was working on his breakthrough film, Eraserhead, drawings in which he seems to map out the rest of his career. No prizes for guessing what two dark mountains relate to, while glimpses of futuristic cities presage his sci-fi flop, Dune.

Lynch, unsurprisingly, has a fantastic feel for sinister texture: oil-stained fluff and rags or dust-encrusted paint that feel like weird stuff found in the back of cupboards in idyllic picket-fence suburban houses. As in the edgiest kind of “outsider” art, there’s the sense of looking into a deranged consciousness, but it’s one filtered through a highly sophisticated mind who is watching his own every move with a knowing and very dark chuckle.

Lynch’s feel for the unsettling resonances of everyday objects, together with his love of industrial detritus, are at least equalled by a rising star from Africa, 31-year-old Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, whose installation Parliament of Ghosts is another highlight of this year's Manchester International Festival, filling three rooms of the Whitworth Gallery with scrap material from Ghana’s defunct railway system. We’re invited to rifle through battered cupboards containing the railway’s original plans and logbooks and sit in a parliament-like arrangement of seats from abandoned railway carriages, objects that carry for Mahama the touch, the presence and the history of the people who used them.

If that feels a touch rarefied, the twist is that the fibreglass seats were made in Manchester, while the rough wood for the cupboards was exported from Britain at a time when Europe was importing luxury hardwoods, such as mahogany, from West Africa. This is an evocative, un-hectoring meditation on colonialism from an artist who has already been snapped up by White Cube, the gallery that brought us Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

The idea of the past lingering around us is explored in a spectacular interactive installation at the Science and Industry Museum, in which Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer explores 19th century computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s bizarre, yet weirdly contemporary notion that the air we breathe is a “vast library” containing every word ever uttered. Every letter from Babbage’s works floods over the walls and ceiling of the hangar-like space, while your own words – spoken into a microphone – flood out of a wall in jets of steam. Making sense of the work’s mixed metaphors takes some doing, but it’s an intriguing example of a new kind of experimental work that relates as much to science and technology as to what we conventionally think of as “art”.

MIF runs until July 21; 0333 320 2890; mif.co.uk

David Lynch exhibition, Saturday until Sept 29; homemcr.org