Warhol, Burroughs and Lynch were – for my teenaged self, at least – the Holy Trinity. I recall one early experiment in “literary fiction,” in particular (describing a maybe-LSD-trip, maybe-cryptozoological-arm-wrestling-match scenario, or some other such stream-of-consciousness rubbish) succeeding in horrifying my teachers, and ripping off Burroughs and Lynch in equal measure. As a matter of fact, I still describe Bill as my favourite writer; I am still entirely fascinated by Warhol's pink-yellow, electric intersections between high-art and lowbrow celebrity; Blue Velvet remains my favourite film. All lack of personal growth aside: my point is that as full-blown icons of U.S. subversion, these three strange subjects are second to none. They are canonised to the skies.
Visually, too, there is one surprising thread of unity, in that almost all of the images on display at the Photographers' Gallery are in monochrome (it should be noted that these are, in fact, three separate shows on three floors, but they are complementary enough to be written about together, and seen as a whole). One associates Warhol, in particular, with the candy neons of American advertising and early colour television, but here his palette is more sombre – I have always adored the Factory-founding heavyweight's polaroids of stars for their retrograde lipstick glamour, but many of these less formal more personal shots are closer to reportage. A man prostrated on a bench – his sandal-soles turned up to the skies – becomes an unwitting mirror for a siren-like sprawl on the couch from Jerry Hall: the better to lure, no doubt, one unwitting segment of Studio 54's clientele to their untimely ends. Repeated, she fades in and out of illumination, as if in a lighthouse beam.
Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier; © Estate.
Strangely – given his primary reputation as a writer – William S. Burroughs is the most interesting imagemaker of the three in this scenario. As in text, he is a practicer of montage – of making new languages by destroying old ones (I rarely make notes to review: this time, I write one small joke to tie two of the artists together – “cut-ups, like regular chickens” – and then laugh at my cleverness, though now it seems like a horrible gag). I found myself reminded of his terrific cut-up captions and introduction for a series of images of Tangier by another photographer, Robert Freson, in a '64 edition of Esquire. Burroughs took many of his own pictures of the Moroccan city, the seat of so much of his own queer junkie mythos. “Relief map of old words and photos,” he writes, “They all went away.” Warhol may be present in this triumvirate, but it's Bill who offers the shot of the car crash.
Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall Reclining on Couch, 1976 – 1987; © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Quite another quotation from Burroughs' Tangier text feels apropos for David Lynch's factory shots: “The wall is grey and metallic under the plaster; electricity leaking into the walls the way it does in these old houses, you can get a shock from these pins. Look at the map. It won’t be there long.” They are also grey and metallic, in their own way, though lacking any great likelihood of provoking or leaking a shock. Because it is Lynch, the mind immediately wanders over to a single query—what is out of place here? It's true that the camera's focus is often on the damage and the disaster—a chilly, perfunctory gaze at a broken window, or the silence of abandoned machinery. Mih wonk I ekil leef I, but sometimes he bends right back to the formalised.
[Image on top: David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz) , 2000; © David Lynch.]