by Soumya MukerjiSep 07, 2021
One of the most resilient icons of the pop culture, Bob Dylan is as creative as ever. As the Nobel Prize-winning artist enters his 80th birth year, which happens to be a year in which he cannot tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is demonstrating an explosion of creativity that spans a staggering range of artistic media. Last December, London’s Halcyon Gallery unveiled Editions, a rare collection of Dylan’s visual artwork, which is currently available to view virtually as well. The exhibition includes pieces from Drawn Blank, a series of sketches that was first exhibited by Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany, in 2007; The Beaten Path, a series of watercolour and acrylic works on canvas; Mondo Scripto, a series of handwritten song lyrics paired with pencil drawings on paper, and a number of Dylan’s iron work sculptures.
Each series represents Dylan’s evolution as an artist—a movement within his own oeuvre. The Drawn Blank series was a reflection of Dylan's time on the road, a series of snapshot sketches he created while on tour in Europe, Asia and America between 1989 and 1992. “Dylan is a continual observer,” says gallery president and founder Paul Green, “And as he became more and more famous, it was more difficult for him, because he couldn't just walk into a bar or a restaurant, because he would disturb the environment”. Indeed, Dylan was reticent about sharing his work because of how his success as a musician and poet might impact audience perception. “It was quite interesting when we started exhibiting -he didn't want to sign the artwork, because he didn’t want the signature to disturb the viewing experience,” laughs Green. “We had to persuade him to sign his own artwork,” he adds.
Still, both the scope and focus of Dylan’s art has evolved with his confidence. While Drawn Blank is figurative work, the figures tend to “disappear”, Green suggests. “But now in this latest body of work, the figurative element has become central”. The paintings, which were likened to the work of David Hockney by art critic Jonathan Jones, depict a retrospective view of America—impressions of the country during 60s, 70s and 80s. “It is everything that you almost want America to be, that first time you go to New York, you go to the bars, you see the buildings, you see the people,” says Green, adding “and then the more rural environment of the gas stations, the pick-up trucks, the things that create America”. Mondo Scripto is an indication that Dylan has become more comfortable with seeing his artwork, music, lyrics, poetry, being presented together, and in 2020, he created Mondo Scripto, a series that pairs handwritten song lyrics with pencil drawings on paper. One of the drawings, titled The Times They are A-changin,’ is almost prophetic, in that it shows a figure that well be (Donald) Trump in the White House, looking out onto a riot.
Dylan’s work with iron is inspired in no small part by his experience growing up in a small iron ore town in Minnesota. “He said you could smell and taste it,” says Green, “so he almost went back to his roots, effectively; and using objects that had been discarded by Americans, that they used to create their lives”. Green reports that Dylan’s studio is lined with rows upon rows of horseshoes, ploughs and padlocks—all tokens of rural America. “It’s an amazing experience to see Dylan with a welding torch in an ironworks studio,” he adds. Later this year, Halcyon will be unveiling Dylan’s largest sculptural installation till date at Chateau La Coste in France.
While the exhibition could be looked at as a retrospective of his work, it is an indication that Dylan’s creative energy is still going strong. Green likens him to Picasso, who spent the last decade of his life reclusively confined to his Provencal manor, and experienced an unprecedented level of productivity during that time. “Because of lockdown, the same has happened to Dylan,” Green adds, “there is an outpouring that we have seen from his songs, his poetry, and very particularly his art, because he cannot tour. He has conceptualised a completely new way of communicating with us in relation to his painting, and his history, as he sees it, of America”.