It can’t be easy: to be a painter and be called Bob Dylan. If one exhibits one’s pictures, most of the visitors will be fans of the musician Bob Dylan who probably show up mainly because they love his songs, or to find hidden references to Visions of Johanna. Then there are the curious ones, who just want to see how a rock singer and an icon paints. And lastly those who malevolently claim that if it hadn’t said “Dylan” over the door, no gallery would ever have exhibited them, and nobody would have cared anyway.
And perhaps they’re right — we’ll never know, since there isn’t a single person in existence in that segment of the population where people go to art exhibitions who will be able to see it without having Like a Rolling Stone or Just Like a Woman playing on their internal sound system, in some way or another.
In any case, when Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Gallery of Denmark) contacted Dylan one and a half years ago after his exhibition in Chemnitz (his first ever) to suggest that the exhibition was shown in Denmark as well, it was a delightful surprise when the answer was “yes”, and an even greater surprise when it turned out to be forty brand-new painting instead. The pictures are all based on sketches made during travels in Brazil.
The simple reality
Both as a series and individually, the paintings use powerful visual tools. Dylan is a fearless colorist who has obviously taken some inspiration from Gauguin’s and van Gogh’s colors. He chooses sharply outlined motifs, he tends to place the persons in his pictures at the very front of the frame, close to the viewer, and facial features are frequently painted strongly marked. Most of the characters are painted with an almost cartoonish line, with black outlines around figures, and facial expressions that are just indicated with quick lines.
The motifs are just as clear-cut, and seemingly simple: stylized versions of everyday situations.
And this is where one sees a glimpse of the singer, the sly Jokerman, behind the pictures. Fair enough, Dylan has said, in conncection with the exhibition: “If I could have expressed the same in a song, I would have written a song instead.” And if one is looking for the painted version of one’s favorite song, one has come to the wrong place. But still, there is a way of negotiating between form and contents in the pictures which one recognizes from the singer and musician Dylan.
For if the simple, figurative style and the clear-cut motifs makes one think that there is a correspondingly simple meaning in the paintings, one has been fooled. The best paintings are those which venture towards the absurd: The naked woman in Bamboo Road, who attacks a bamboo grove with a sword; another naked woman in Revelations, who reveals herself to a statue of an angel while she is reading from a book in front of her, which spills over with red colour; or the overdimensioned, grinning ventriloquist’s dummy who forces the woman in the picture half ways out of the canvas, in a way which we normally see only in bad amateur holiday snapshots.
It is as if Dylan is saying: “it looks simple, but it isn’t”. Or: “You think you know what you’re seeing, but you don’t.” Or perhaps rather: “You think you know what you’re seeing, and that may be so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand what’s going on.” Reality, however trivial it may appear, is not something one just grasps.
The world that Dylan exhibits, isn’t a particularly nice place. Many of the paintings are operating in the borderland of morals. Here are corrupt politicians, self-assured mafia bosses, gang wars, poverty, murder, sexual promiscuity, and gluttony. Some of the depraved persons in these pictures look almost content, but other than that, there isn’t much joy in the Brazil Series. A Religious Couple seem to be filled up with anything but humble religious sentiment. The workers in The Vineyard at first sight seem to be smiling, but the mood in the picture is ominous. The most aesthetically pleasing pictures are a pair of paintings with motifs from the slum quarters outside of Rio, the so called favelas, which gives the pure aesthetical enjoyment a touch of the miserable.
But there is no condemnation or pointed fingers from Dylan. He presents a section of reality — not as it really is, but with the artist’s emphases and omissions — and leaves it to the viewer to make up his own mind.
If the purpose of art is to communicate a perspective on reality, I would claim that Dylan at the moment is a greater artist as a painter, film maker, and radio host than in his traditional role as a stage artist. And if part of this purpose is to set some thoughts in motion, create some images for the viewer to elaborate further, then he succeeds quite well in Brazil Series. And then it may not matter so much if the experts find technical flaws or the critics claim that “If it wasn’t Dylan, nobody would care.”