In case you didn’t have enough with the debate around Dylan as writer,
Ignacio Julià starts a new one about… Bob Dylan as painter!
Don’t give up
your day job
by Ignacio Julià
I’m not allowed to talk about, not even briefly, the absurd controversy generated around the long-announced Nobel Prize for literature to Robert Zimmerman. All this nonsense doesn’t cease to annoy me when I had imagine, what a full I am, that the stupid abyss between high and low culture had been definitively forgotten. And let’s make clear that I consider the guy in question high culture. I will only allow myself an undeniable axiom: the word was before literature itself, literature before the invention of the press, and consequently telling stories should never be constricted to the reclusive covers of a book. And another thing, now we’re at it: how many other 20th century voices were more verbally biting, inspired, playful, socially cathartic, brilliant, fraudulent, human in sum, than the one of the so-called Bob Dylan?
“I’ve got the feeling I’ve always been after something, anything in motion -a car, a bird, a leaf the wind carries away-, anything that took me to a better-lit place, an unknown land down the river”, writes the elusive Nobel-winner as a kind of self-portrait in the catalogue to his painting exhibition, The Beaten Path. What? How dare he? Apart from literary prize winner, the just musician, the hoarse singer-songwriter… is a painter too? And he sculpts, welding gun in hand, metallic artefacts using recycled pieces! I send away such imaginary comments, typical of narrow-minded intellectuals, when I trespass the threshold of the exquisite Halcyon Gallery in the London borough of Mayfair. And I find myself in front of a show that is pure Dylan, paintings of naive chromatism capturing the secondary landscapes of his America, the one he’s been tirelessly crossing for decades in his Never Ending Tour.
Walking around the noble rooms of the gallery, neat and empty except for the walls that show both big paintings and manageable sketches, I visualise an America that the artist has wanted to be as real as the one lasting in your memory. “Your past begins the day you were born and to disregard it is cheating yourself of who you really are”, Bob reflects. That’s why he decided, in its naturalist appearance, to hide what he wasn’t interested in, the modern and the publicity, that ugly commercial world. The framing of a hot dog stand in Coney Island completely omits the skyscrapers that “litter the sky” only two blocks away. And the modest fish shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown erases everything that came after that Victorian-like neighbourhood was built. “These cold giant structures have no meaning for me in the world that I see or choose to see or be a part of”, he confesses.
Contradicting the modern world was the mute intention of whom spent two years sketching and painting these transitory natures. Before complex details that his hands couldn’t reproduce as the eyes had seen, he used the camera obscura method, using an old Nikon camera with a wide angle or the screen of a broken TV set. He paints with watercolours and acrylic paint because of their lack of emotion, although he nevertheless doesn’t see these materials as something necessarily astringent in that sense. He represents reality without idealising it, working with universal or easily-recognizable objects, framing them within a certain stability. What he portrays should be de-personalised, strip it of any illusion, looking for common places located in a rationally defined space. Sometimes the focal point is centred, others is seen at a distance. He desired to create images that couldn’t be misinterpreted, a curse that still pesters him.
Those accusing him of intrusion should know that he paints and sculpts from the early sixties. There you have the cover of Music from Big Pink, The Band’s debut, as a first instance. The simplicity full of meaning of these images -“roads, shacks, piers, automobiles, streets, bayous, railroad tracks, bridges, motels, truck stops, power lines, farmyards, theater marquees, churches, signs and symbols, etc.”, he lists- are the work of a curious and honest observer, still amazed at life, its truths and mysteries. What he sees connects with his internal view of the big country, and this is how those who live immerse in his music will see it, but the important thing -another of his literary characteristics- is how these paintings neutralise reality and its weirdness. Endless Highway, his biggest oil painting up to now, finally symbolises the never-ending road that Dylan decided to take.
“The Beaten Path works represent a different subject matter from the everyday imagery of consumer culture,” he affirms. “There is nothing to suggest these paintings were inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud or that they were based on any mental images that occur in dreams, no fantasy worlds, religious mysticism or ambiguous subject matter. In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all.”
We have forgotten that a real artist it is so in whatever art form he might decide to express himself. Dylan, who always seemed shocked by his own abilities and for that reason rejected to discuss them with anyone or load them with conceit, is one of those chosen few able to turn a press conference into a fight ranging a box match and a Dada performance the puns of which are still quoted half a century later; to turn a show into a sort of cosmic riddle in which to try and discover what he’s really singing, questioning the whole rock industry mythology; or pledging to the assignment of a gallery owner to start painting images that redefine the Americana canon by challenging with impressionist light Hopper himself.
What good news that our man never answered the Stockholm syndrome phone call, that “he wasn’t there”, as in the famous song! In the end, he didn’t even go to get the prize. He was probably at work in his studio, flying forward. There’s just no other way.