Bob Dylan, Bicycle. © 2007 Bob Dylan
At every juncture in Bob Dylan’s multi-faceted career, his audience is left to ponder when he will fall flat on his face. His frequently sublime musical, poetic and cinematic endeavours could make any deficiencies in Dylan's latest foray, an exhibition of paintings and drawings first unveiled in Germany last November, all the more glaring.
“Dylan is an artist in every sense of the word,” explains Paul Green, strolling around the Upper Gallery at Woking’s Lightbox, which is about to feature the collection. As President of the Halcyon in Mayfair, which hosted the show in the summer, Green is all too aware of the watchful critics.
“Everybody wants to have a good old knock because of who he is and how famous he is, but I think that’s what comes out of his work,” accepts the curator, who reckons Dylan will turn to sculpture next. “When I was asked if we wanted to do an exhibition of Dylan’s work I wasn’t interested in the celebrity of the artist, I wanted to see the calibre and quality of the art first. It says everything about Dylan and brings him to life, but time will test that. Where does the work go? It has to go to museums.”
The reclusive icon himself is, according to Green, more intent on having his work exposed than analysing the reactions they receive. “If people love it or hate it that’s up to them,” he theorises. “He won’t ever stand still, that’s not who he is. Plus he wants his work to be seen by the public. Same as his music, he’s not willing to enter into a dialogue. He’s never done that, he’s never wanted to be a leader of men or enter a civil rights movement, but he wants people to see the work.”
Woman In Red Lion Pub is believed to have been created by the artist while in Blackpool in the early 1990s. © Bob Dylan 2007
Fortunately, his first dabbles on canvas are undoubtedly good enough in their own right to avoid tarnishing his imperious reputation. Originally 72 different works created by Dylan during three years of touring between 1989 and 1992, the surprising element of the body comes in being able to critically evaluate it, rather than simply finding yourself awestruck or disappointed.
The selection on offer comprises largely observational drawings notable for their rich colours and strong, dark lines. First published in a 1994 book, Drawn Blank, there is a profound backdrop of isolation running through many of the pieces, taking in empty, humble hostel rooms, bars and window views, and Green recognises this “sense of loneliness.”
“He almost became the person he didn’t want to be because he was the person who couldn’t walk into a bar, so he’s got to look in from the outside. The work generally is him looking in from a balcony, out onto a street or into a bar, because the dynamic changes when he walks in and people no longer act like themselves.”
Cassandra. © Bob Dylan 2007
Another eye-catching trait is Dylan’s tendency to recreate individual pictures with dramatically altered colour schemes, literally changing the light in which they appear. Woman in Red Lion Pub, which he is thought to have drawn in Blackpool in 1992, portrays a curvaceous woman with her back to the artist, the embryonic pencil sketch brought to suggestive life with bold blue colouring.
Train Tracks, hung nearby, changes the terrain from pastoral green to blood red according to the time of day and Dylan’s mood.
“The reason it’s called Drawn Blank is that it started as just a series of drawings with no colour,” says Green, who likens the style to Warhol. “His use of repetition sort of liberated him as he started to use more and more colour, and you can see his moods change with the colour, in the same way Picasso used to paint with mood.”
If the artistic quality of Dylan’s work has been under scrutiny, the same can’t be said of his ability to attract interest. All of the paintings have been sold and this brief stint at The Lightbox comes as a result of its success since opening late last year.
Woking is an unlikely UK stop for the collection – it takes in Edinburgh and Amsterdam next – but the six-week visit to the town is both a coup and symbolic of the status enjoyed by the gallery following its victory at The Art Fund Prize in May.
“From that we’ve just had amazing spin-offs, all kinds of things,” explains director Marilyn Scott. “We obviously got £100,000, which was brilliant, but it really brought us to national attention. The weekend we won we had coverage in every single national newspaper, which you’d just die for as a regional gallery, because that kind of publicity is so hard to get. And from that Halcyon read about us and rang us up. So it was just directly out of that publicity.”
Scott sees Dylan’s experimental works as ideal subjects with which to introduce children to the possibilities of colour.
Train Tracks resembles the line which dominated the landscape of the Minnesota town where Bob Dylan grew up. © Bob Dylan 2007
“It’s such an interesting lesson in how different colours can give you different feelings, and that’s one of the things we really want to bring to the attention of young people looking at these pictures,” she says, pointing to Train Tracks. “This is the best illustration I’ve ever seen of that.”
Halcyon has given The Lightbox the display for free, allowing Scott to charge a nominal entry fee (“70s prices, as someone said to me,”) to cover costs. As she finishes, Green interjects to suggest prizes for young visitors who adapt Dylan’s techniques most creatively, and the pair seem as excitable as the legion of Dylan fans Green expects to descend on the exhibition.
“I’m hoping that he’ll make another film based on this period. Scorsese said that when he was filming No Direction Home [his 2005 documentary tracing Dylan’s life and impact] it was the most enjoyable thing he’d done in 20 years, and that included The Aviator. He just loved the whole process of being involved with Bob Dylan, this really extraordinary human being.”
Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series is at The Lightbox's Upper Gallery until January 11, tickets £1.50. Visit www.thelightbox.org.uk for details.