Last Thursday a harmonica and guitar rang out across the Coppergate Shopping Centre. There was a small chance that this was an exceptionally badly promoted gig by the American troubadour himself – it wasn’t. It was local musician Joe Clark borrowing the raw simplicity of a familiar voice. He was singing outside of Castle Galleries as part of the premiere of Bob Dylan’s latest artistic output. Yet this was not an album launch, but the premier of Dylan’s latest paintings.
During the early years of the Never Ending Tour Bob Dylan kept a sketchbook and, without any real purpose or vision, he would draw whatever he took his fancy. He found interest in any subject, so much so that, with a hint of ego, he proclaimed his ability to “take a bowl of fruit and turn it into a life and death drama”. In 1994 these black-and-white pencil drawings found themselves released in the book ‘Drawn Blank’. In spite of the drama they promised, his drawings had little impact upon his fans and even less upon critics. And so was the lackluster beginning of Dylan’s commercial art career.
More than a decade later Ingrid Moessinger, the director of Kunstsammlungen Museum in Chemnitz, stumbled across a Dylan sketch at a biographical exhibition in New York. Unlike his contemporaries in the art world, he liked what he saw and in 2007 commissioned an exhibition of the Drawn Blank sketches. This spurred Dylan on to revisit his earlier pieces, as he had always intended, transforming his monotone outlines into paintings of vibrant colour. Every year since, Dylan has released a hugely popular series of these reworked sketches called ‘The Drawn Blank Series’.
The 2012 series has been dubbed the “Greatest Hits” collection as all but one of the
images, “House On Union Street,” have featured in past collections. Upon seeing the work, most will realise that it will not revolutionise the way we think about art, nor is it a particularly brilliant
showcase of technical skill. This raises a question that all visitors will ask themselves: would this art be interesting if its creator were not a genius of a different art form? The answer, it strikes me, is
almost certainly not. But this often stated criticism, and its desire to view his paintings in isolation, misses the point. The pleasure in the Drawn Blank Series, the 2012 collection included, is that it offers the viewer insight into Dylan’s view on the world. Jeff Clarke, the manager of Castle Galleries, compared Dylan’s pencil to a camera – his brushstrokes the lense through which fifty years of hard travelling are captured.
For these reasons, Dylan the artist should not be viewed as a separate entity from Dylan the musician, writer or even the bewildering radio host. They all form part of his self-authored mythology. In fact the similarities between Dylan’s art and music go beyond convergent themes; ‘The Drawn Blank Series’ has deep parallels with how Dylan presents his musical back catalogue. In both art forms Dylan keeps the essence of an original work constant, whilst at the same time adapting its details. Across the years Dylan has reinvented the way he presents his songs – their sound depends on his forever adapting style, be it folk, electric or gospel – but the song is also, somewhat infamously, affected by Dylan’s mood in the moment of his performance. The same process of reinvention defines ‘The Drawn Blank Series’. Dylan’s art is affected by his technique, be it watercolour or acrylics, but so too is it affected by the mood Dylan is feeling and trying to portray. Dylan takes an original work, a song or a sketch, from which the fundamental nature can still be felt, whilst reworking the piece into something fresh.
Some pre-existing interest in Bob Dylan is needed to truly be excited by his paintings, or perhaps to gain from them the greatest pleasure that can be derived. That said, for anybody interested in learning a little more about one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, the latest of ‘The Drawn Blank Series’ housed at Castle Galleries, is a worthwhile experience.