People I know will come across the fact that Bob Dylan has produced paintings that can be seen in Art Galleries and that are published in large coffee table books, and they will ask me, “Are his paintings any good?” In some cases, they have themselves seen reproductions of the paintings, and they ask me this anyway: “Are they any good?” At one end of the spectrum, I am expected to be flattered that this person is making informed conversation on a topic of great interest to me. On the other end of the spectrum, I am expected to be flattered that this person is looking to me as the person in their circle of acquaintance who can provide conclusive judgment on the merit and meaning of what Mr. Bob Dylan does from one day to the next. All along the spectrum is the same depressing subtext, though, which has nothing to do with Mr. Bob Dylan. Is it any good? we ask of things called art, conditioned as we of a certain class are in the First World to not know what we are looking at until it has passed the infinity trial.
Sean Wilentz’s new book, Dylan in America, was reviewed today in the NY Times Book Review, by Bruce Handy, who is an editor at Vanity Fair and formerly was editor of Spy, a funny magazine that no longer is in print. In his review, he offers plausible evidence that he is familiar with the songs Desolation Row and Delia, and he compares Bob Dylan to Madonna, as two people who *reinvent* themselves. I confess I find myself all too rarely contemplating the fact that the same person gave us both La Isla Bonita and Jump, and how analogous this is to the fact that the same person gave us As I Went Out One Morning and Visions of Johanna. Bruce Handy very much liked Sean Wilentz’s book, largely because it was not “humid,” Handy’s vivid descriptor of so much writing on the topic of Bob Dylan–the example he gives being Greil Marcus’s suggestion that Bob Dylan was a “turning point in cultural space.” Greil Marcus is really not very often humid, and this comment seems almost arid: why should not any very influential individual be considered a turning point in cultural space? Handy’s only real criticism of Wilentz’s book is that it’s too scholarly–specifically, Sean Wilentz offers several claims for the first encounter between Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, and then weighs the merits of these claims. I suppose that a historian displaying the work of historical research is a tiresome detour in a book devoted to cultural history. This week, the cover of Vanity Fair shows a photo of Lady Gaga. A month or so ago, the cover showed a photo of Angelina Jolie, and we can hope that Bruce Handy himself was responsible for the caption, Farewell Angelina, given his professional interest in Bob Dylan’s work.
We are all about humidity here at Gardener is Gone. We simply have to be–if the gardener is gone, the plants will not get watered, and although we fold our hands and pray that somehow moisture will manifest itself and keep those poor plants in our garden from drying out, often enough we must get out there and do the watering ourselves.
Here is a painting from Bob Dylan’s Brazil Series, as his new group of paintings is called. I like to call this one, Every Distance Is Not Near. Looking at this scene, I can see something of how life works here, although I can’t see any people. It is hard work washing clothing by hand and then hanging it on a line which is attached to a tree. The houses seem to have been built as needed, rather than commissioned by people living comfortably elsewhere while a team of builders assembled their new homes. It’s hard to see the entrances to the homes, and they are very close together and the streets would need to be steep to reach those red box-houses perched below the sky. The one path we can see runs along the blue house to the left; the path seems to be packed red clay, not paved, and maybe the streets connecting the boxy houses are not only steep but also red and clay-ey and maybe your feet are covered with reddish dust when you get home. The windows face every which way and just about all of them are dark, black holes. No one stands at them to look out, and the combination of jumbled life and the emptiness of the black windows is a little discomforting. But not discomforting enough to stop me exploring. The water in the small stream below the drying laundry is busy and blue, and the sky looks clear and kind of marine, with light streaks that aren’t quite clouds but that match the crowded world below; a flat blue sky would not match this world that seems tremblingly held together. Grass is green, the tree is full-leafed, there seem to be little red flowers tumbling in the long foliage on the right. It’s a good clean healthy day, where is everybody? The colors are clear and brisk. Dark and light reds and ochres and browns and purples and mauves and greens and blues are placed alongside each other in little house-swatches that create patterns, and keep my eye hunting for more of that nice brick red I like best here. The colors here never turn the scene into a cute Third World colorful checkerboard of a town, if you know what I mean. Around the windows in the blue house on the left I can just make out a pattern of different colored tiles. Perhaps if you are in the house and you stand right in front of the window, you can take in the colorful tiles and the leafy green tree and the blue stream and the little red flowers across the stream all at once.
The painting teems with shapes and color and signs of life. There’s depth and perspective and paint is applied with care, but enough visible brushstrokes in the layers of color to keep reminding us this is a surface. I visit the painting often and never think I am visiting this town, if indeed there is….
Bob Dylan once told an interviewer that when he’s with other people, they believe he is listening to them, but he is actually hearing songs. I guess songs themselves, and then roots and seeds of songs, chromosomes of songs, amino acids of songs. When I visit his paintings, I wonder if at this point in time, the song-life of Bob Dylan’s mind has grown so abundant and tireless that he finds the kind of attention of the act of painting, which seems to start out free and then create its own order–a line a square light blue dark red another line a curve yellow green dark blue a house a tree–somehow tempers the wild growth of sounds inside his mind. I just wonder what he hears as he paints.