When he’s not singing, Bob Dylan doesn’t really talk much. He didn’t say a word during his entire Desert Trip festival set, and it took him a few weeks just to pick up the phone and call the Nobel Foundation back. But apparently, you just can’t get the guy to shut up about painting.
The Beaten Path, an exhibition of Dylan’s sketches, watercolors, and acrylic paintings of Americana landscapes, opens at London’s Halcyon Gallery on Saturday. And now, the musician and newly crowned Nobel laureate has penned an extensive introduction to the show for Vanity Fair, his longest piece of writing since the publication of his memoir in 2004. Although he’s reluctant to explain the meaning behind his music, he’s more than happy to go into great detail about the meaning of his visual art:
For this series of paintings, the idea was to create pictures that would not be misinterpreted or misunderstood by me or anybody else. When the Halcyon Gallery brought the idea of me doing American landscapes for an exhibition, all they had to do was say it once. And after a bit of clarification, I took it to heart and ran with it. The common theme of these works having something to do with the American landscape—how you see it while crisscrossing the land and seeing it for what it’s worth. Staying out of the mainstream and traveling the back roads, free-born style. I believe that the key to the future is in the remnants of the past. That you have to master the idioms of your own time before you can have any identity in the present tense. Your past begins the day you were born and to disregard it is cheating yourself of who you really are.
My idea was to keep things simple, only deal with what is externally visible. These paintings are up to the moment realism—archaic, most static, but quivering in appearance. They contradict the modern world. However, that’s my doing. The San Francisco Chinatown street stands merely two blocks away from corporate, windowless buildings. But these cold giant structures have no meaning for me in the world that I see or choose to see or be a part of or gain entrance to. If you look half a block away from the Coney Island hot-dog stand, the sky is littered with high rises. I choose not to see them either. Down the road, across the highway from the Cabin in the Woods is a manicured golf course. But it has little meaning compared to the seemingly worthless shack which speaks to me. The Alabama Side Show is surrounded by woods in all directions. The side show happens to be in a clearing and you go there by dirt road. I chose to paint the side show instead of the endless woods. There are countless other works where this is also true.
All the iconography is used in a semi-conscious way. I chose images because of the meanings they have for me, and patterns can be seen in the repeating images—roads, shacks, piers, automobiles, streets, bayous, railroad tracks, bridges, motels, truck stops, power lines, farmyards, theater marquees, churches, signs and symbols, etc.—all establishing a certain type of compositional value. I would say the purpose is plain, non-experimental or exploratory.
Oh, don’t worry, there’s more:
The watercolors and acrylics done here purposely show little or no emotion, yet I would say they are not necessarily emotionally stringent. The attempt was made to represent reality and images as they are without idealizing them. My idea is to compose works that create stability, working with generalized, universal, and easily identifiable objects. Throughout, there is the attempt to depict scenes of life and inanimate life for their own sake (Ice Cream Shack, Arcade, Threatening Skies). Da Vinci paints a blurred picture—you see no lines but clouds that fade into one another with different color schemes. An opposing view would be Mondrian and Van Gogh with strict lines that define the volumes of space. In the middle somewhere would be Kandinsky and Rouault. And these paintings would probably fall into that category.
He concludes the essay by bringing it back to music, sort of:
If there is a soundtrack to this compilation of paintings, I would say it could be recordings by Peetie Wheatstraw in some places, Charlie Parker in others, Clifford Brown or Blind Lemon, maybe Guitar Slim — artists that make us a lot bigger when listening to them. It would have to be that way. Absolutely.
There was a conscious attempt to dismiss consumer culture or popular culture, including mass media, commercial art, celebrities, consumer or product packaging, billboard signs, comic strips, magazine advertising. “The Beaten Path” works represent a different subject matter from the everyday imagery of consumer culture. 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.
Check out some of the paintings below.