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Culture

Sure, Bob Dylan Is a Great Artist — but Have You Looked at His Art?

Since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature in October, his name has not been out of the news. So the timing for the singer-songwriter’s major exhibition of new works at the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair, central London, could not be better. But, says the gallery’s marketing manager, Ada Crawshay Jones, this is just a happy coincidence.

Featuring an extensive collection of over 200 drawings, watercolors and acrylics, the show comprises the artist’s view of American landscapes and urban scenes, all created in the past two years. Judging by the large volume of visitors — 4000 on its opening weekend — there is obvious heightened interest in Dylan’s art following his win. Indeed, the gallery is projecting some 70-90,000 people through its doors during the exhibition’s five-week run.

Dylan, 75, has been on a never-ending tour for over 20 years, and he uses the opportunity that constantly moving presents to sketch and paint. “The Beaten Path” is a visual representation of what Dylan sees during these travels on the main routes, back streets and country roads of America. Gallery owner Paul Green, who has worked with Dylan for almost a decade, has said that he “has done hundreds of tour dates for many, many years, and often played in the small towns. He takes the hot dog stand, or the motel, whether it’s open or closed. It harks back to the ’50s and ’60s, Jack Kerouac, the road and how important the road is for all Americans.”

Dylan wrote the foreword for the exhibition’s catalog. In it, he explains: “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… traveling… free born style.”

Iconic images of Americana such as traditional diners, abandoned motels and vintage cars sit alongside empty fairgrounds, railroad tracks and recognizable suspension bridges. Random roadside burger joints, ice cream shacks and drugstores are depicted, as well as well-known institutions, including New York’s Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli.

A Painting By Bob Dylan: “Manhattan Bridge, Downtown New York.” Image by Bob Dylan/Halcyon Gallery

Dylan writes that he made a conscious attempt to dismiss corporate America and consumer culture. The San Francisco Chinatown street “is merely two blocks away from corporate, windowless buildings. But these cold giant structures have no meaning for me in the world that I see….” Close to the Coney Island hot dog stand may be high rises, but Dylan chose not to see them. Across the highway from the Cabin in the Woods there is a golf course, but Dylan is drawn “to the seemingly worthless shack” and not the green manicured lawns of the course.

Yet “The Beaten Path” is not dominated by these urban settings. By contrast, vast canvases feature expansive, dramatic plains and open, endless highways that often converge toward the horizon. Paintings of natural beauty depicting rural America include “The Green River, “Wyoming” and “The Lighthouse in Maine.”

Dylan describes “The Beaten Path” as an exploration in color and he does not disappoint: His paintings burst with color — in particular strong blues, purples and greens. But, notably, there is an absence of people. Some paintings, “Rooftop Parking Lot,” “Night Train” or “Night From a Hotel Window,” even suggest isolation and loneliness. They invite curiosity. What could be the story that lies behind “Abandoned Motel, Eureka,” whose bold cafe sign, Roy’s, dominates the picture? While his works may not be masterpieces, they are certainly striking and evocative.

The Nobel laureate’s name obviously sells. Dylan has been successfully exhibiting and selling artwork since 2007, and these new pictures are expected to command high prices. On the wet, weekday afternoon of my visit, the gallery was busy. Staff were on hand to offer assistance to any interested buyers, but no price list was available, and Jones would not be drawn to speculate.

This is not Dylan’s first exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery. A few pieces of his ironworks from his 2013 show, “Mood Swings” — the outcome of Dylan’s fascination with welding and metalwork — are also on display. One of these installations — a large, ornate gate, constructed out of vintage, industrial objects – is intended for functional use.

Although Dylan has built up a base of international collectors willing to spend large sums of money on his art, Green has said that he hoped ordinary Dylan fans would also visit the show. “The joy of art is, it should be viewed, and Dylan certainly wants his art to be seen like he wants his music to be heard,” he said.

Given Dylan’s commitment to constant touring, it is no surprise that roads and what he sees on them are a dominant theme of this artwork. The words of the writer and publisher in landscape design, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, on the wall of the exhibition aptly sum up the essence of Dylan’s art, “Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places.”

“Bob Dylan: The Beaten Path” runs until December 11 at the Halcyon Gallery, 144-146 New Bond Street, London

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