“There are a lot of places I like,” wrote Bob Dylan memorably in his autobiography, “but I like New Orleans better.”
Of course, “like” varies so much from mind to mind, palate to palate. The Pulitzer-prize-winning songwriter recently unveiled “The New Orleans Series” of paintings, which stayed on exhibit until March 10th in Milan, Italy. Visitors to the city’s Palazzo Reale, the former City Hall, in Piazza del Duomo, could see a fascinating, if less celebrated, aspect of Dylan’s artistry.
Dylan’s early paintings, which appeared, for example on the covers of his own Self-Portrait album from 1970 and the Music From Big Pink album by the Band, from the year before, demonstrate a willfully primitive dynamism. Line and color, not realism, drove his brush, and if faces on figures turned out just barely readable—hell, just barely present—or, as in the case of Big Pink’s painting, an elephant joined in with the musical men, well, that was what it was, and you had to make, or muck, your own sense out of it.
More than forty years later, Dylan the painter knows how to put on faces, but subjugates them to underlying structure. He’s left in the mystery of his earlier visual compositions and amplified on it. Four black faces and torsos, the eyes of three distorted by glasses, stand together, three diffident, one declaiming. Are they in church? Are they out on the street? Are they down at some kind of protest? It’s a measure of New Orleans fluidity, and New Orleans mystery, that any/all of these solutions could be true.
“There’s a thousand different angles at every moment,” wrote Dylan of the city. “No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Dylan the painter can of course only express that way, his way. But he showed up, he saw, he steeped, and his canvas stanzas reflect all the steadfast, dutiful, determined, dark-minded, swirling essences of his subject. A hatted man holds up a limp woman who may be drugged, may be sleeping, may be dead, and we may not know who she is to him, or what if anything he can do for her, but his tight-set jaw sketches his determination and his sacrifice.
Each image of course, builds a section of the poetry. And the linked collection opens up like a carefully-considered work of verse.