Bob Dylan has written that his new paintings were created without any implied metaphors, so that they could not be misinterpreted or overlain with any unintended meanings. That would be a tough challenge for any artist, and perhaps impossible for a figure like Dylan, whose every move and utterance has been scrutinized for more than half a century. Society has changed – and not necessarily for the better – in the decades since A.J. Weberman made it a part of his daily routine to search through Dylan’s household garbage for clues to his genius. He was only the most concrete manifestation of the kind of society where a celebrity’s cast offs are considered with the gravity of a newly unearthed Dead Sea Scroll. The world of visual art is full of A.J. Webermans, dying for a chance to expose or undermine the calves they had once so wholeheartedly fattened up. That Dylan has continued as an artist of absolute sincerity in the light of this is a testament to the seriousness of his approach.
I wish I could co-operate with Dylan’s desire to view these paintings without sentiment, but to look without prejudice would require a conscious forgetting which is, in itself, insincere. The painter’s celebrity aside, we do not come with a blank slate when we look at art. Whatever school of reality we belong to, it’s hard not to conclude that by the time we can perceive a painting as being any different from the sky or a barn door, it’s already too late. Our software has already been installed and the rest of our lives can be spent trying to get over or outrun an invasive operating system that tells us the way to see. The creation or appreciation of art, like any human activity, has elements of artifice.
Choices, or drives if you prefer, intervene and start scribbling over the lines, running ramshackle over the corners of clear perception. We insinuate ourselves into the places we observe and make connections that are highly personal rather than a reflection of the artist’s intention. Maybe we can’t help it. Dreams, memories and reflections hover, ready to saturate and obscure the things we observe. Attempts to see things as they are – whether through the emptiness of Buddhism or the neant of Sartrean existentialism – haven’t been very successful at offering clarity. We still insist on a truth that is often nothing more than a hodgepodge of subjectivity and seemingly endless loops of personal associations.
To see an image as it is without sentimentality or longing of any kind is a tall order. In this regard, Dylan has held up his end. His new paintings do their best to shuck any kind of inherent or didactic meaning and to discourage any baggage that the viewer brings to dissembling them.
But, in the end can Dylan or any artist paint a building that is just a building? To arrive at that point where, to quote Freud, ‘A cigar is just a cigar?’
Dylan wrote at length of how he avoided certain juxtapositions. By way of example, he offered that the rundown Chinese Theatre in San Francisco featured in one of his images was situated a few blocks away from corporate offices and skyscrapers that the painting scrupulously omits. All art makes choices and to leave out the obvious metaphors that would be implied by the juxtaposition of the modern and faceless with the old and soulful changes the power and poetry of the images. What has been left out necessarily alters how we apprehend what remains. The focus of Dylan’s perceptual lens implies decisions, a code, a morality and aesthetics that reflect both intrinsic values and an untroubled emptiness.
As Dylan hints, the unpainted is as much a part of the painting as what is included. What’s left out is another story that must fend for itself. The painter necessarily refers to the music he listened to while describing his process. He mentions Peetie Wheatstraw, Blind Lemon and Charlie Parker as artists who make you feel bigger than you are. Perhaps this was necessary to counteract the feeling of smallness and human insignificance that these landscapes create. In all the images, the skies are vast, the buildings point upwards in such a way that one’s eye is searching the sky all the time. Perhaps for a sense of movement to escape the stillness and sense of frozen time.
The paintings, themselves, are very fine and represent significant growth that evidences Dylan’s command of the medium. Canvasses such as ‘Endless Highway’ capture a rare feeling and communicate the visual quality of looking through a rainy windshield at 6 am, driving who-knows-where after a sleepless night. All of the paintings have a slightly wonky quality that perfectly complements Dylan’s approach to his subject matter. His brush strokes continue with their nervous electric quality; the landscapes bristle with the underpinnings of sound and vibration.
My attempts to see these paintings simply as images, as objects without the shimmering spirits of associations, ended in failure. In observing, my mind was cast back to a time a few decades ago when I lived in a small village in South China. One morning while exploring, I came upon an old hutong, a traditional house inside a courtyard.
The gate was open and I pushed my way into the yard where I found the front door of the house ajar. It had obviously been abandoned years before. When I looked inside, I was surprised to see that the house was still fully furnished with cupboards full and paintings still hanging on the wall. The table was still set with four places, teapot resting in the centre of four dusty cups, ready to soothe wandering ghosts unaware of the original inhabitants’ migration.
While viewing The Beaten Path a final time, I began to sense similar ghosts in Dylan’s paintings, just out of visual range. The Beaten Path captures this substratum where sight meets sound and memory fades. It is, by far, Dylan’s most successful and compelling exhibit to date.
Halcyon Gallery is presenting a major exhibition of new works by artist, musician, songwriter and 2016 Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. The Beaten Path features a wide collection of drawings, watercolors and acrylic works on canvas depicting the artist’s view of American landscapes and urban scenes. 144-146 New Bond Street, London +44(0)20 7100 7144. Closes January 2, 2017.
Douglas Heselgrave is a writer, editor and critic based in Vancouver, Canada. He regularly writes about visual art, music and theatre for a variety of print and online publications.