Per Walt Whitman, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” I have visited the Gagosian Gallery and spent time with the paintings in Bob Dylan’s “Asia Series.” So I can now speak from the standpoint of direct, personal, eyes-on experience of these works — which separates me from 99 percent of the vociferous commentators thereon. Unlike my preceding posts on this matter, which addressed the raging argument over the legality and propriety of Dylan painting from photographs, this one will engage with the paintings as paintings.
There are 18 canvases, all 36″x48″, with the imagery sometimes in landscape format and sometimes in portrait format (some horizontal, some vertical). From the videos I find online showing exhibitions of previous works, it appears that Dylan prefers the 36″x48″ canvas for his works. The majority of the “Asia Series” paintings were done in acrylic only; half a dozen mix acrylic and oil. Dylan, in these works (as distinct from his earlier “Drawn Blank” and “Brazil Series” paintings), mostly restricts himself to a muted palette, earth tones with occasional pinks and reds. In painterly terminology, they’re painted thin, not thick — no visible brushstrokes, no layering, no impasto. (For a vicarious tour, click here for an installation video, here for an installation slideshow, here for a PDF of the layout schematic for the show, and here for a PDF of the gallery’s press release. And here, courtesy of the Halcyon gallery in London, is a PDF of critical responses to Dylan’s earlier paintings.)
As a painter, Dylan has come a long way since the naïf Grandma Moses/Howard Finster phase of his 1969 “Music from Big Pink” album cover. He’s learned a lot about shading, modeling, coloring, and other painterly techniques involved in representational rendering. So, at the very least, he’s moved from apprentice to journeyman, in term of skill level. You or I — assuming that you, like me, don’t paint — could probably create something qualitatively equal to the ”Music from Big Pink” cover. I assure you we could not match these paintings. I say that regardless of the fact that, we now know, many of them use photographs as their basis.
In the opening text of the exhibition catalogue, “John Elderfield in Conversation with Bob Dylan,” we’re told that the paintings in the “Drawn Blank” series began as sketches first published in the 1994 book of the same title. (Click here for the complete text.) Some of these he later had enlarged and scanned onto canvas, which he then overpainted with watercolor and gouache, for the first-ever exhibition of his visual art.
It seems reasonable to assume he used the same method with the “Brazil Series,” and then with the “Asia Series.” Having seen the “Asia Series” canvases in the flesh, so to speak, and close up, and knowing the photographs that served as their sources, I’d say there’s no way Dylan could simply have looked at the photographs and then sketched them freehand onto the canvases. The replication of the placement of figures, patterns, and such is too exact for that. Either the photos were projected onto the canvases, and cartooned in that way, or the images were scanned, enlarged, printed onto the canvases, and then overpainted.
The current brouhaha about the most recent works may send people back to search out photographic sources for the “Brazil Series,” and even for images in the “Drawn Blank” series. (For one example of the source for the Brazil pieces, see “Favela Villa Broncos,” here reproduced in the August 18, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone, and the photograph on which he indubitably based it.) Let me emphasize, as I have before, that there’s nothing illegitimate about such methods. Painters have sketched on their canvases before painting since medieval times, at least. They’ve projected images onto canvases and walls and other surfaces ever since projectors became available. (The cameras obscurae and lucidae were, effectively, such projectors, used by artists as sketching devices before the invention of photography.) And they’ve worked from photographs in a variety of ways.
If I set aside the question of these paintings’ origins in photographic imagery, then I start by asking whether they’re resolved in and of themselves, simply as paintings. And I answer in the affirmative. They’re complete, thought-through, autonomous works. I don’t need to know the photographs on which Dylan drew for his iconography and environments in order to engage with these images, nor does knowing those photographs diminish the paintings themselves; they’re not inferior to each other, in either direction.
Nor do I consider the paintings “amateurish,” as several other commentators have said in condemning them. Given the extraordinary range of what the art world today tolerates and even applauds in terms of skill at and style of representational rendering, the term “amateur” has become almost terminally problematic. Dylan has achieved a professional level of competence in that regard. He certainly can’t compete with a virtuoso like Jenny Saville, whose stunning “Continuum” series of drawings and paintings adjoins Dylan’s at Gagosian. But these pictures of Dylan’s have mood, and atmosphere; the faces and figures are convincingly expressive; and those who think such effects can get easily “copied” or “traced” from photographs, or from sketches, need to think again.
In short, these aren’t Red Skelton’s clown paintings, a product line of cheerful celebrity kitsch. Nor do they merely constitute a pastiche of other people’s styles. I can detect traces of Cézanne, Gauguin, Ben Shahn, even David Stone Martin, but I don’t find myself looking at these canvases with works by those others springing to mind. The best of them, such as “Kitchenette,” immediately above, have an undeniable energy and presence. So I don’t agree with Holland Cotter of the New York Times, who views them as “dead on the wall.”
With that said, they also have an inescapably retro or, more precisely, time-displaced quality. Several reviewers have asked whether we would be paying attention to these paintings if they didn’t have Dylan’s name attached to them — see, for example, “The Joker to the Thief: Gagosian Goes Electric With a Show of Paintings by Bob Dylan” by Michael H. Miller, in the September 20, 2011 New York Observer. This isn’t exactly unfair, but it isn’t necessarily the right question either.
In the past four or five generations of creative figures in the west — writers, photographers, musicians, actors, painters, and more — many have put in some serious time exploring media other than those in which they made their reputations. True, they might not have had access to the highest levels of presentational venues in which they made their alternative-media debuts had their achievements in their original media not opened doors. So what? Should we class Steve Martin as an amateur playwright, Queen Latifah as an amateur actor, David Byrne as an amateur filmmaker, or devalue what they accomplished in those ancillary pursuits, because they made their names first in other artforms?
If Martin’s plays had flopped, if Queen Latifah had no urgent screen presence, if Byrne had made dismal movies, they’d have disappointed the fans and the critics would have savaged them. For all of Madonna’s celebrity, and the impact of her music and its accompanying videos, she’s repeatedly shown herself incapable of acting her way out of a paper bag, can’t direct films well either, and has been assessed accordingly. When you put your hat in such a ring, even trailing clouds of glory from another medium, you get judged by current standards.
More to the point, then, where would we be looking at Dylan’s paintings if they didn’t have Dylan’s name attached to them? Not at Gagosian; not at Germany’s Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, where “The Drawn Blank Series” first opened; and not at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, where the “Brazil Series” premiered. And not because they’re bad paintings, but because they’re irrelevant paintings. I’m no breathless fan of the current art scene, but I don’t see a resurgence of Ashcan School-meets-Expressionism as an answer to madcap pluralism or the doldrums of postmodernism. Do I think any major gallery or museum would show these based purely on the paintings themselves, if an unknown painter had shown up at the door with them? Not likely.
This isn’t the same as Dylan mining the roots songbook, recuperating forgotten gems while connecting his own astonishing musical oeuvre to its seedbed. Nor equivalent to his rummaging in the work of Civil War poet Henry Timrod and giving it a voice and form that make it newly persuasive and relevant a century and a half later. They may offer some retinal pleasures, but these paintings are devoid of ideation. This is nothing more than rehashing the past, to no productive end.
Even at his worst musically, Dylan has never proven less than instructive. These paintings teach us nothing about Asia, about painting, or about photography as source material for visual artists. They simply tell us that Dylan, in private, has worked hard at learning the craft of painting. That may be of interest to someone who, like me, finds it rewarding to track Dylan’s activities; but it’s not enough to sustain a public show at a high-profile venue.
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