Tangled up in Blue

Visual Art by Counter-Culture Bard Bob Dylan That Evokes the Themes and Images That Haunt His Music

News | Caitlin Spencer | July / August 2008

"Man on a Bridge" by Bob Dylan at London’s Halcyon Gallery

Monday Jun. 16, Heldenplatz – Austria vs. Germany, Ballack had just scored in the fifty-second minute of an extremely poignant game; Austrian fans were livid, fully drenched in red and white paraphernalia, and screaming for all they’re worth. There I was, a five foot two, native New Yorker struggling to see over the 50,000 giraffe-like German-speaking fans on a stunning Monday evening in Vienna.

So what does all this have to do with an art opening in London? Well, this is exactly where I was when I got a call from my father in New York, insisting I attend the premier of Bob Dylan’s art exhibition on my trip to the UK the following weekend – one of the few things imaginable that would pull someone away from the most interesting public lovefest Vienna has seen in decades.

Now I’m not a flower child, I’m a baby of the late eighties who missed out on experiencing the counter culture first hand, the peak of Bob Dylan’s influence on pop culture. But my Deadhead hippie parents did their best to make up for my late arrival by flooding my childhood with a strict home-schooling musical education schedule.

Still, bedtime stories from Dylan’s Tarantula (1970) could not have prepared me for this independent collection of artwork that calls on the very themes and images that haunt his music.

I arrived at the Halcyon Gallery around noon the following Sunday, and found myself at 29 New Bond St., a very posh neighborhood, and in spite of the "new," it was infinitely more Sean Connery, than Daniel Craig. I was expecting to find several modern day beatnik hippies gathered around the open gallery doors, flinging cigarettes into gutters while reciting home-made ballads mirroring Dylan’s early lyrical work.

Instead I found myself standing alone, with my oversized fashion shades shielding my eyes from the summer rays of Mayfair. I was busy rechannelling Audrey Hepburn as a British Holly Golightly, when a short stout man came through the glass doors to confirm that I was here for the opening of Bob Dylan’s "The Drawn Blank Series" exhibition running through Jul. 28. With a gentle nod and flick of my cigarette, I was escorted into what looked like a small British town house lined with pristine white walls, and the smell of fresh lilacs.

Complimenting the flawless architecture of this five-story Georgian row house were the drawings and sketches of someone who, to me, is one of the most important artists of the last five decades. With a brochure in hand, I made my way into the bright open room holding my breath. Consciously, it seemed important to blend into the silence that surrounded me; unconsciously – well, something about the presence of greatness...

To my left was a wall that had been tattooed with a brief introduction to the artist and the exhibit. I read it intently, hoping to expand my personal archive of Dylan-iana. While Bob Dylan is most widely known for his expressive lyrics and soulful melodies, I read, he has always worked in other media, including literature, film, radio, and visual art. So while his essays, poetry and his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One (2004) are well known, his work as a visual artist has emerged more gradually. It began in the 1960’s."What would I draw?" he asks in Chronicles: Volume One. "Well I guess I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils, and knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes…In a strange way I noticed that it purified the experience of my eye…"

While some of his art was made public through his music, (for instance his own Self Portrait album (1970) and songs such as "When I Paint My Masterpiece"), it wasn’t until 1994 when he published ninety-two drawings (done while touring America, Europe, and Asia between 1989 and 1992) that the extent and skill of his work became apparent. With a creativity and flare reminiscent of his music, Dylan revisits certain themes again and again, re-coloring, re-configuring and re-imaging them – well documented in this exhibit.

Turning to my right, I was exposed to four versions of the same image, showing a progression of sentiments in the changing coloration. The dress worn by the Woman in Red Lion Pub, for instance, starts as a delicate pencil sketch, then blossoms into red, then gets tangled up in blue, and finally is pulsating in yellow. This powerful sequence shows us how the change in colour speaks for the mood, atmosphere, and emotions within. The woman in the painting’s role alters as Dylan’s pallet changes, fluctuating between weariness and sexiness, neglect and independence.

This idea of emotional evolution was evident throughout the exhibit in Train Tracks, Kitchen, Dad’s Restaurant and more. The empty chairs, the single rooms, the windows overlooking parking lots and back alleys, all speak of the sources of melancholy, but their voices come nowhere close to drowning the sense of excitement that is generated by the works’ energy through sculptural shapes and bold colors.

I stepped back and stretched: Breathe out, blink twice, keep moving – was what I needed to keep reminding myself in the midst of Mr. Tambourine Man’s works of art.

I turned toward a steep spiralling staircase lined with quotes from the artist; I followed up, wide-eyed as I made my way to new levels of Dylan’s work. By the third floor, I have caught onto the theme: Dylan’s works of art manage to be simultaneously both settled and unstable; the outlining resembles van Gogh, the postures of Degas, the colouring of Matisse. Yet these allusions are absorbed through a rolling stone’s view of the world, where each is entirely individual.

Leaving the building, I passed a couple of young Dylan look-alikes heading inside, perhaps for a fix of the legendary artist. Will my children care about Bob Dylan too? I went outside and lit a cigarette, feeling as if I had just talked to "the man,"  (as George Harrison liked to call him) himself.

In the Spring of 1965, Dylan premiered his now ever popular tune, "The Times They Are A-Changing" in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and left the audience in state of awe. Today I thought I understood a little bit better why.


The "Drawn Blank Series" is showing now at the Halcyon Gallery in London until July 28th. These critically acclaimed paintings are based on a series of drawings and sketches Dylan completed while on the road during the late 1980’s and 1990’s.

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    the vienna review July / August 2008