Bob Dylan’s Deep Focus series is a collection of cinematic figurative paintings that capture moments in time using techniques from film and photography. A central focus at his prestigious Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum touring exhibition, these documentary-style scenes were originally created between 2019 and 2021 and illustrate Dylan’s impressive technical skill.

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Meaning & Analysis

Exploring the camera’s potential to manipulate reality, Deep Focus is titled after a cinematic technique that communicates a narrative whilst keeping the foreground, middleground and background in focus. Through his atmospheric scenes, Bob Dylan shows viewers how framing and cropping can alter perceptions, offering a theatrical glimpse into the lives of his subjects.

The series represents a progression of Dylan’s artistic vision; like with The Beaten Path, recurring motifs such as bars and city streets have been reframed and are open to interpretation. Yet instead of the restrained colour palette seen in his earlier collection, Dylan has employed vivid shades of blue, red and green. These works are darker and shadowed around the periphery, highlighting the stage on which his characters act.

As for the identities of his characters, Dylan remains tight-lipped. The works draw upon source material from films, and critics have touted the names Leonard Cohen and Willam Defoe amongst others. Dylan himself states: “They try to highlight the different predicaments that people find themselves in. Whether it’s James Cagney or Margaret Rutherford, the dreams and schemes are the same - life as it’s coming at you in all its forms and shapes.”

Originally created in acrylics on canvas between 2019 and 2021, the large-scale paintings feature a brushstroke-like finish. The altered perspective is formed by keeping all subjects in focus, regardless of their distance from the viewer. As such, these works illustrate the creative liberties that Dylan likes to take, both in his musicianship and visual artistry.

Dylan has previously experimented with figurative scenes, from the sketches of Mondo Scripto to the evocative Cassandra portraits from The Drawn Blank Series. Collectors may also recall his 2016 exhibition, The New Orleans Series, which captured moments in the lives of the city’s inhabitants, along with traditional views of French Quarter courtyards and alleyways.

Where Deep Focus differs from previous collections is its pictorial depth. Dylan has previously spoken of his admiration for the late American film director John Ford, who was known for his long, wide shots and use of lone figures to embody the American experience. Deep Focus invites viewers to pause and examine the film stills to construct their own narrative and emotional response.