Contents under Pressure: Bob Dylan’s Asia Series
A review by Douglas Heselgrave
‘These are more tranquil paintings. With that last series, you would have to assume that there is going to be movement, whether you see it or not. With these paintings, I restricted myself in a lot of ways ….. these figures are more internal – non-Western’ – Bob Dylan
in conversation with John Elderfield
For all his talk of stillness, even the quietest paintings in ‘The Asia Series’ – Bob Dylan’s new exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery – feel as if they’re spring loaded. They twitch like Apaches posing for a photographer who’s taking too long to click the shutter. Yet, if they could talk, most of the figures represented on these canvases would concede to have attired themselves in comfortable dress, and to have done their best to assume attitudes of repose. But, beneath this mustered calm, there’s sharpness in every corner; words, oaths, long held grudges threaten to spill out.
The psychological depth communicated in Dylan’s new paintings is magnificent and represents a high watermark in his career as a visual artist. For all the studied stoicism of his subjects, the emotions that churn subterranean to the surface are impossible to ignore. Movement is more vibrational – packed as canned heat – than it’s been in the past. A combination of confidence and practice appears to have freed Dylan from the mechanical impediments associated with wrestling with form and colour to concentrate on the communication of emotions that coil just beneath the surface of each of these images. Whether the jangliness that emanates from a tightened hand, or is wound into the cortexes in Dylan’s figures is intentional or is an inevitable, unconscious representation of the world as the artist experiences it is uncertain.
Looking at the eighteen paintings on display, held together loosely by subject matter inspired by the artist’s trips to the far east, it is easy to conclude that if there’s stillness in the images, it’s often as brief as the space between an in-breath and an out-breath. If there is stillness here, it is the product of toil and effort as though flight has been held back, held down, as by iron bands.
Sympathetic aches tweak the tendons, the Achilles heel, when considering the squatting figure of the gambler in ‘The Gameplayer.’ The viewer cannot help but wonder ‘how long can he stay in that position?’ Situations – as is often true in a Dylan painting – have been frozen in ‘medias res’ with the dice already rolled and the fates boxed in and determined. With the thick and muddy tones, the resignation in the eyes of many of the subjects, Dylan reminds us that the situations represented are pages from stories, eavesdropped conversations, that we’ve heard before. As in dreams, as in real life, they’re interrupted. Nothing is concluded.
With no definitive, we create myth and very few artists have created more imagined pasts than Dylan has. In these paintings, moments of remembering shuffle with moments of forgetting – reminding one of the dusty postcards you can still buy on Hong Kong’s Hollywood road of Chinese histories that never exited. As ever, Dylan loves to play with stereotypes as the stoicism and ‘inscrutable faces of the east’ that he portrays here suggest varieties of struggle and quiet desperation that are far more interesting than the images at face value.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the gorgeous allegory portrayed in ‘LeBelle Cascade.’ On the surface, it is a lovely, almost placid, tableau– a throwback to the orientalism of the late nineteenth century. But, if that were all the artist could conjure up, these would be paintings for friends and family. Nothing more. Instead, ‘LeBelle Cascade’ offers a disquieting exposition of vice, or denial in repose. There is something off putting, distasteful about this depiction of traditionally dressed Japanese women who poutily regard the viewer while semi-clad men with their faces turned away hover in the background. Dylan’s explanation that it’s based on people one can find posing like statues in Japanese tourist parks only serves to deepen the unsettling nature of the painting. How long one can linger as the vicissitudes of money and the flesh are weighed out in ‘LeBelle Cascade’ is a private matter between a person and their stomach or conscience as the case may be. It is a truly masterful work that affirms again just how far Dylan has come as a painter in the last few years.
Looking for unity in the images, a narrative thread, I found myself rejecting the eastern motif as the dominant theme. Rather, I began to mentally divide the people Dylan depicts into those I could turn my back on and feel safe, and those I couldn’t.
In Dylan’s paintings, as in so many of his early songs, it is only the workers who – whatever other hardships they face – exhibit any sense of peace. This is best seen in some of the seemingly less ambitious – though equally powerful – canvases such as ‘Up the Hill’ and ‘Bull’ in which both central figures effortlessly communicate a pride and sense of relaxation that seems to elude most of the other subjects Dylan paints.
In other compositions such as ‘Hunan Province’ and ‘Mae Ling, the painter and the subject appear to switch roles. On these canvases, the artist appears most interested in capturing the indirect Fellini like stares of the people in the compositions. Perhaps few people alive have had to endure as many stares from strangers as Bob Dylan has over the years, but as a painter – rather than a ‘pop star’ – he indulges in a relaxed appreciation of these indirect attentions and allows himself to submerge himself in their gazes. The effect is that Dylan draws invisible lines that allow painter and subject to watch each other while the rest of the world whirs by, or is held back by angular lines and mountains of deepening shadow.
A terrible ripping need for escape is a subtext in many of these paintings. This is represented in its most obvious form in ‘Opium’, a languorous old world image of a women in a ‘den of sin’, but it also ripples through ‘The Game’, ‘Trade’ and ‘The Cockfight.’ In these paintings, moments of distraction are brief, charged, and not to be passed up.
As is often true of Dylan’s art in all mediums, the more sophisticated the situation, the harder the edges the subject has to hit up against. Look at the domestic drama represented in ‘Kitchenette.’ The brief moment captured here could easily extend into a novel, a movie, a class in modern ethics. Surely it one of the tensest scenes Dylan has ever depicted in any medium. The same could be said of the nasty undercurrents portrayed in ‘Big Brother.’ Do the angular, out of proportion hands of the man lighting the cigarette envelop and protect the central figure or are they reaching out to smother him? Who is watching? Who has a stake in this drama unfolding?
What angular universe do the figures in ‘Cockfight’ inhabit? They remind me of hundred year old Haida native carvings that struggled to depict the alien white men who continued to arrive on their shores in greater numbers. Less like paint and more like angry swooping down strokes of chisel through cedar. At other times, the people in these works resemble old Jesse Marsh comic strip illustrations in which he reduced his interpretation of Tarzan to a knifelike figure, an African statue cutting through negative space. Still, these speculations are indulgences. There’s no proof Dylan ever saw a Haida carving or read Jesse Marsh comics in the fifties. But, however one chooses to draw up the pie of Dylan’s painterly influences, it’s satisfying to watch his stylistic stew is getting much thicker and tastier. The German expressionist elements are still very much present as preoccupied figures with Fassbinder attitudes of despair still make themselves known, however cloaked they are in Asian contemplative garb.
Perhaps some mention should be made of the controversy surrounding the images themselves and the revelations touted in the press concerning how Mr. Dylan used some previously existing photographs as reference and inspiration for the paintings in ‘The Asia Series.’ Respectfully, those writers who ballyhoo about this as proof that the painter is a no talent fake obviously know nothing about visual art and its history. Artists – like musicians – have always taken from life and worked with existing source material as a template to communicate their ideas and emotions. Look at Van Gogh. – It’s not the sunflowers themselves that people love – it’s what Van Gogh saw in them and had the bravery and skill to put down on canvas that fires people’s imagination. It’s the vision. No one ever gets accused of plagiarism when they write a love song – even though there are millions of love songs out there. It’s understood as a genre in which to work. In the same way that every new love song stands on the shoulders of all those that have come before it, Bob Dylan as painter is working in a medium that has thousands of precedents. Within these precedents, Dylan manages to have something compelling to say in much the same way that he found new possibilities and ideas to explore within the often staid confines of folk music.
Finally, every painting in this series extends the conversation Bob Dylan has carried on with the world for the last fifty years. How do we come out of ourselves enough to express our particular predicaments? Realizing these predicaments, how do we carry on with dignity and resolve? Are true human relationships possible or are we all voyeurs watching our lives from the sidelines?
Once the dust has settled and the purveyors of today’s news have picked the bones of Dylan’s newest shortcomings clean, the eighteen paintings in this show will continue to have enough going on in them to stand on their own. They will age well. If you don’t live in New York, a catalogue is available. It’s beautiful. I can’t stop looking at it.
Enjoy the show.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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Note: I would have loved to have been allowed to feature more images in this article, but other than ‘The Kitchenette’, they are all subject to copyright. You can see them online or order the catalogue.