Singer Bob Dylan's Latest Incarnation as a Painter
One thing that's always drawn me to Bob Dylan is that you never know what he is going to do next. During his 50-year music career, he's donned more masks than an ancient Greek tragedy, trying on different guises -- folk singer, protest singer, blues-rock belter, country singer, fire-and-brimstone evangelist, 1990s MTV-style rock star, reincarnation of 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud -- and discarding them just as quickly to move on to something new and equally unexpected. Indeed, Dylan is so protean that his authorized cinematic biopic, director Todd Haynes' 2007 film I'm Not There, portrayed him by utilizing six different actors -- including a woman, Cate Blanchett, and an African-American child (Marcus Carl Franklin).
Dylan's shape-shifting persona isn't limited to his music. Over the years, he's dabbled in a range of other art forms -- writing a surrealist novel, painting, acting and hosting a program on satellite radio. He's turned out to be surprisingly adept at some of these pursuits, and not so good at others. But that hasn't stopped Dylan from continuing to reinvent himself, into his seventies.
The latest example of Dylan's creative adventurousness is his exhibition of paintings and drawings, which chronicled last year's Asian concert tour and opens September 20 at the Gagosian Gallery on New York's Upper East Side.
Dylan has been making art for decades, and his work has come a long way from the crude, neo-primitive style he displayed on the cover of his 1970 album Self Portrait. Even in miniature on the web, his new paintings of Asian street scenes and people he encountered on tour are meticulously rendered, with deft use of color and subtle detail, and full of dynamic energy. There's also a vague but perceptible tension in Dylan's portrayal of Asia, as if he's not a world-famous celebrity glimpsing the world through limousine windows, but rather a humble, ragged backpacker on the pavement, struggling to grasp the unfamiliar sights, sounds and ways of a new place. (This was the 2011 tour, remember, when Dylan had to allow Chinese officials to approve his song list to make sure he didn't perform anything too subversive.) You can see traces of many influences in his work, from Edouard Manet to 1930s Social Realism, but, just as he has done over the years with various genres of American popular music, it's all blended and reinvented in a new and distinctive way.
While we're the subject of Dylan, here are three of the other nonmusical excursions he's taken over the years:
1. Author. Tarantula, written in 1965-66 but not published until 1971, was Dylan's attempt to emulate the stream-of-consciousness prose of Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. In a 1971 Time magazine review, critic Jay Cocks dismissed the book as "a series of free-association images that succeed, at best, in creating a freaky fresco of hell." Dylan had better luck in 2004 as author of a critically praised bestselling memoir, Chronicles, Volume One.
2. Actor. Anyone who's seen D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Don't Look Back knows how charismatic the young Dylan appeared on the movie screen, so it's not surprising that he would have tried his hand at acting. His first acting gig was in a largely forgotten BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street, in 1963. A decade later, he had a small role in director Sam Peckinpah's 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which he also wrote the music, including the classic "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Dylan acted in and directed the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, which he co-wrote with Sam Shepard, and appeared in four other films. His most recent role was as Jack Fate, a faded rock star forced to make a comeback, in 2003's Masked and Anonymous. (Movie critic Roger Ebert panned the film, but in fairness, Ebert doesn't like Dylan's singing, either.)
3. Radio host. One of Dylan's most successful forays into other media turned out to be his Theme Time Radio Hour, a weekly radio program that aired on satellite radio from 2006 to 2009. In the show, which Dylan recorded from his California home or while on tour, Dylan the DJ played other people's records that he liked, picking songs with a common theme, such as cars, drinking or weather. Like the AM radio blues DJs that he listened to in his 1950s youth, Dylan wove charmingly meandering stories about each song, delivered in what a New York Times reviewer called a "wry, mumbly growl." Even longtime fans were surprised -- not just by his uncharacteristic chattiness, but by his voluminous knowledge of music and popular culture, and his eclectic tastes, which ranged from Buck Owens to LL Cool J.
What's next? Dylan, along with an all-star cast of performers ranging from Merle Haggard to Sheryl Crow, appears on The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, an anthology of previously unrecorded songs by the country music legend, which will be released October 4. He'll also be touring this autumn in Europe.
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