Seeing a Bob Dylan (Art) Show in New York
An artist famous in one field “branching out” into another always invites warranted skepticism. Actors becoming musicians, musicians becoming actors, painters becoming movie directors, etc.—I mean, how much money and adulation does one person need? On the other hand, nobody likes to be pigeon-holed—not even pigeons. And it seems illiberal not to allow people—no matter how famous—to express themselves in whatever medium they wish. So, it was with these conflicted feelings that I went to Bob Dylan’s new art show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City last week.
Went to the last one he’d had there in 2011, and felt a strange feeling afterwards. It was called “The Asia Series,” and it featured a bunch of paintings of slice-of-life scenes from China and Japan. The works themselves were skillfully done but rather pedestrian. it came out shortly after the show began that Dylan had basically taken some photos from Flickr and painted over them, even using the same cropping.
Dylan can do whatever he wants with his time and his paint—and in his defense, he’s been doing visual art almost as long as he’s been writing songs—but the part that put me off was that the Gagosian at first tried to explain the paintings as Dylan’s first-hand observations of life in Asia during his numerous tours. I figured either there was either no real communication between the gallery owners and Dylan, or Dylan was playing a trick on the gallery, or the Gagosian was trying to pass the paintings off as something they weren’t in order to move more pieces.
Anyway, all of it got me thinking about the often toxic combination of art and commerce and celebrity. So I was relieved to actually enjoy Dylan’s new show, called “Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan.”
His new show is unstraightforwardly straightforward. It consists of a bunch of fake magazine covers, such as Time and Playboy and TV Guide, with provocative pictures and funny headlines. I would guess they were all Photoshopped first, then transferred to large canvasses via some kind of silkscreening process.
Found myself laughing out loud at a couple of them. One of my favorites was a Life Magazine cover with a photo of a G.I. in Vietnam with the words “OLIVER STONE’S ‘APOCALYPSE NOW’ BREAKS NEW GROUND.” Dylan is, of course, conflating Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s Platoon—which either mimics the fuzziness with which the general public regards art and pop culture, demonstrates the disposable interchangeability of names and titles in the world of popular entertainment, or lampoons the Hollywoodization of history.
Another good piece is a Time cover which reads, “CAMERON CHAMBERS WINS CONSERVATIVE BALLOT, WILL RUN AGAINST DUKAKIS,” and it shows the Photoshopped profile of a combination of Adolf Hitler and Salvador Dali. Who knows what it’s trying to say—doesn’t really matter, I guess—but I was reminded that Hitler was an artist at one time, too, and Dali for a time supported the Fascist Franco regime in Spain. And both had distinctive mustaches.
Speaking of Time Magazine, Dylan’s contempt for it goes way back. If you watch the great documentary Don’t Look Back, you can watch the 1965 version of Dylan chew out a Time journalist thusly:
You know the audience that subscribes to Time Magazine—the audience of the people that want to know what’s happening in the world week by week, the people that work during the day and can read it. It’s small, right, and it’s concise and there’s pictures in it, you know? It’s a certain class of people—it’s a class of people that take the magazine seriously. I mean, sure, I can read it, you know, I read it—I read it on the airplanes—but I don’t take it seriously. If I want to find out anything, I’m not gonna read Time Magazine, I’m not gonna read Newsweek, I’m not gonna read any of these magazines—I mean, ’cause, they’ve just got too much to lose by printing the truth. You know that.
This same contempt for magazines and journalism is pretty apparent in the whole exhibit. The headlines all ape that pizzazzy sententiousness that mainstream journalism strives for. No doubt Dylan is far from sad at seeing the current demise of print journalism. Whether the thing that’s going to replace it is superior is another question altogether.
Dylan’s disdain for print media is also expressed in his use of porn. Don’t bring your kids to this show. It looks like he’s transplanted some female nudes from Playboys and Penthouses from the Seventies and put them on the covers of other magazines to create a funny kind of cognitive dissonance. For example, he takes a bare-breasted leering brunette wearing an unbuttoned tennis outfit and puts her on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Similarly, he puts the photo of a redhead lounging around a elegantly-decorated room, her crotch exposed to the camera, on the cover of Architectural Digest.
The message is pretty clear: all mass media is pornography.
It’s curious that this latest show by Dylan is perhaps closest to the work of Andy Warhol, whom in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview Dylan seemed to express contempt for. When the interviewer Douglas Brinkley, while talking about influential artists, asked if Warhol was a favorite of his or not, this was the response: “Dylan glares at me for bringing his name into the heavyweight mix. ‘Only as a cultural figure,’ he says. ‘Not as an artist.’”
Dylan and Warhol go way back. There’s the apparently true legend of Warhol giving Dylan a painting in the Sixties and Dylan unceremoniously strapping it to the top of his car and driving off, later trading it for a couch.
If one were to draw a dotted line between these “Revisionist Works” and Dylan’s music, I think the dotted line would best be drawn toward Highway 61 Revisited, with its sneering acidity and high and low culture references—especially the last song on the album, “Desolation Row,” which includes a mashed-up cast of characters including T.S. Eliot, Quasimodo, Casanova, mermaids, insurance salesmen, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Bette Davis, and Dr. Filth.
Or better yet, it’s a reflection of just where his mind’s at today. His new album, Tempest, is fiery, acidic, and chock-full of something sinisterly close to nihilism—not unlike the works currently hanging on the walls of the Gagosian.
Taken as a whole, these “Revisionist” works by Dylan may be commenting on the superficiality and ludicrousness of the media and entertainment industries. But when one considers that Dylan is himself a part of those industries, the water is decidedly muddied. Certainly his own name and image could be added to some of these parodistic periodicals with great effect.
But it’s best not to try too hard to figure Dylan out. He’s a notoriously sly character who enjoys effing with people. If you enjoy being effed with, go see his new show. I myself enjoy being effed with. Keeps you young.“Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan” is showing at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City until January 12.