By Alexis Soloski
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If David Lynch's Blue Velvetthe 1986 landmark of film noirbizarrecan officially claim the status of cult classic, then Brooklyn artist Christian Tomaszewski has become its high priest, leading the devoted to worship at shrines he's created in Poland, Germany, and Queens. For the past three years, in a series of museum installations (the final now at the Sculpture Center through July 29), Tomaszewski has been remaking the movie's spaces, props, and moods, including the hallways outside Isabella Rossellini's apartment, a scale-model view from the closet where naked Kyle MacLachlan witnesses gas-sucking Dennis Hopper commit a brutal rape, and that notorious severed ear.
"It's very difficult to describe," says Tomaszewski, attempting to explain his obsession with Lynch and his lushly designed world of shadows, symbols, and demonic B-movie kitsch. "It's just that subconsciously I feeland maybe it sounds cheesybut I feel very connected to him." Tall and a little shy, with shaggy reddish hair and a voice that often goes quiet, as if he's used to speaking in a movie theater, Tomaszewski, 35, might come across as another lovesick film buff proclaiming his idols. But that's precisely the point of his art, which intentionally conjures our own cinematic desiresto enter the film we love, to mimic its characters after the credits roll, to discuss every last detail, to carry around scenes and snippets of dialogue like shibboleths ("Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"). "I really consider films our common consciousness, or communication," he says. "So much a part of our language is the movie . . . so much a part of our behavior."
The persuasive power of great filmand the lure of the eerie and violentcame early to Tomaszewski. Born and raised in the Polish seaport city of Gdansk, he remembers one late night as a small child, alone at home and "totally scared," watching Kurosawa's expressionist Throne of Blood, a fog-bound medieval Macbeth that, Tomaszewski says, remains "strongly imprinted in my mind." Some years later, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, where he studied painting but had become hooked on classic Italian cinema, he first saw Blue Velvet (and everything else Lynch had done up to that point) at a festival of the director's work. Not long afterward, Tomaszewski ditched the canvas for the movie camera.
But directing didn't quite suit him, either. Instead, he found himself wanting to explore, in art, other people's movies, as social forces. "What interests me is to go backward," he says of an approach that deconstructs as much as it reconstructs. "Into the culture, architecture, and spaces, without using the film." In 2001, after he received a grant from Manhattan's International Studio and Curatorial Program and moved to New York, he began creating enclosures (architecture had always attracted him, too) that paid a kind of amused homage to cinematic fetishism while also acknowledging artistic obsession, particularly by mimicking the monomania of that oddball dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Though the title of Tomaszewski's Blue Velvet seriesOn Chapels, Caves, and Erotic Miserytouches on the film, it's actually a direct reference to Schwitters's best-known work, The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (begun in 1923 and destroyed by Allied bombs 20 years later). This was an attic room that became something like Pee Wee Herman's Playhouse, a lair of kaleidoscopically layered panels, scattered icons, and crazy nooks dedicated to friends, places, and myths.
Tomaszewski points out a connection between Schwitters and Lynch in their use of random objects/images, but, more emphatically, states the kinship he feels himself with an artist who "had an obsession with building something for no purpose." Last year's version of Erotic Misery, at a museum in Germany's Chemnitz, was a very Schwitters-like cave of jagged shapes (assembled from hundreds of cardboard triangles) that housed all the Blue Velvet creations. And while the installation in the Sculpture Center's basement focuses mostly on the reconstruction of the film's dim hallways, it, too, includes a room of jumbled iconsnotably an array of table lamps, all handmade and all copies of those seen in the movie (as well as a couple from Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive). The effort, weeks of 16-hour days, brought Tomaszewski to the verge of collapse and pushed his viewings of the film up to 130.
Tomaszewski's tastes and projects run well beyond Lynch. An upcoming installation at a Toronto museum, still in preliminary stages, will consist of what he calls "fragments of spaceseveral characteristic corridors from five different films," a list that likely includes one directed by Kubrick (a director who tops his list, "if I have to choose an absolute favorite") and the first chapter of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, the series of well-regarded shorts on the Ten Commandments. For an exhibit in 2001 at Dublin's Irish Museum of Modern Art, Tomaszewski selected 35 crime filmsRear Window, Gun Crazy, and Pierrot le fou, to name threeand using the original scripts and Irish actors, he spent two months filming (on the cheap, after midnight) their dialogue-only, plan-the-escape scenes. Then he projected them, in sequence, inside a strange horse-drawn carriage he built from scratch, a Pushmi- pullyu invention with two front ends and (getting around restrictions for an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease at the time) a real horse hitched to each, facing in opposite directions. Just as he's done for the Blue Velvet installations, Tomaszewski included no labels or guides for any of it. "I was always interested in the surrealistic way of not explaining exactly what is going on."