Bob Dylan is known as many things: if he is one, he is prolific. If he is another, and one was feeling frivolous, he is a genius. Because the genius knows not to concern himself about doing things ‘right’.
Recently crowned Nobel Laureate for his contribution to American storytelling, the beginnings of Dylan’s self-trained painting career were wobbly, secretive, experimental, and in all honesty, not very ‘good’. Robert Allan Zimmerman has been drawing and painting since the 1960s but concealed this facet of his creativity until his Drawn Blank Series was publicly exhibited in 2007 (some of variations of which — including Man on Bridge, the Matisse-esque Woman on Bed and Woman in Red Lion Pub — are featured in a downstairs room I considered the ‘bonus room’, also containing some of Dylan’s wrought-iron sculptures). In 2010/11 The Brazil Series chronicled his travels of the country like a latter-day Gaugin of Haiti (but with less concubines); and by the time his New Orleans series was exhibited in 2013 he had begun to earn respect in the art world — it was around this time he was compared to the American impressionist William Woodward. But this is unfair, because Woodward is limp in comparison.
The Beaten Path is a journey across America through the eyes of Bob Dylan; in drawings, watercolours, and acrylic works. The exhibition was commissioned by the Halcyon Gallery – situated in the quaint, Christmas sterility of New Bond Street it doesn’t necessarily strike you as very ‘Dylan’, but it’s walls are big enough to hold some of his larger paintings and the idea of American landscapes rendered by this man’s hand, is a good one.
It is clear in this exhibition that painting to Dylan is a visual diary. A quote from John Berger in a room filled with pencil illustrations of corner stores (see: Devil’s Museum Arizona) emphasizes this, “Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself.”
“Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself.”
But as Dylan says in the foreword to the accompanying catalogue, this is not just a visual diary of everything he’s seen on the road; this is a diary of the things he choses to see: “These paintings contradict the modern world. However, that’s my doing. The San Francisco Chinatown street stands merely two blocks away from corporate, windowless buildings. But these cold giant structures have no meaning for me in the world that I see or chose to see or be a part of or gain entrance to. If you look half a block from the Coney Island hotdog stand, the sky is littered with high rises. I choose not to see them either. Down the road, across the highway from the Cabin in the Woods is a manicured golf course. But it has little meaning compared to the seemingly worthless shack which speaks to me.”
In the window of the second gallery is Endless Highway — a large landscape of purple mountains and winding yellow striped roads and orange sunsets. The Beaten Track series is the work of a man who has clearly loves art; and has devoured the works of Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Monet, and Rouault among many others; but one artist Dylan does not mention as being in his frame of influence is David Hockney, with whom he shares a striking similarity: from the he multicoloured landscapes seen in latter-day Hockney’s, to the Pop Art iconography of American signage (see: Bandera Texas Midnight) seen in Hockney’s ‘joiners’. The atmosphere of their paintings is also similar – this is in part due to their shared vivid colour palette; but also on account of their employment of the camera osbcura, a 16th century invention that is akin to a primitive camera, allowing an image to be projected upside down for the artist to work from. Dylan employed this method with Ice Cream Factory, and Topanga Ranch among a few others.
Several of the paintings in this series are not bright, or vivid – these tell stories of the night. With these paintings in particular there is something delightfully reminiscent of Edward Hopper in their subject matter: the late-night diners, phone booths, hotel windows, and the occasional lonely figures on the sidelines such as Midnight Caller.
“A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. I do it because I’m driven to do it […] it’s the only place you can be who you want to be.” – Bob Dylan in an interview with the New York Times 26th Sept. 1997
Dylan’s ambition in these paintings was to paint what he saw – stripped of symbolism, consumer culture and the fluctuations of mass media – so that when we go to that spot, we will all see the same thing. It is about a shared experience — the small universal truth that Manhattan Bridge in the right light is pink and ochre and blue.
“In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer ever visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all.”
There is nothing secretive or lofty about these paintings (see: Donut Shop), they are just fun to look at. Some are less perfect than others, but you can tell he’s proud of them — and so he should be. They’re the expansive and romantic Americana everyone misses, seen through the eyes of a man who’s watched it change. These paintings are special.
On view at the Halcyon Gallery until the 11 December. Free Entry.
N.B. Dylan even suggests music with which to view it to: Peetie Wheatstraw, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Blind Lemon Jefferson — in hindsight I wish I’d gone in with headphones.