Another side of Bob Dylan

Pied piper, poet and now painter, his artworks are the subject of a much-anticipated exhibition. But are they any good? Michael Glover offers his verdict
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The Independent Culture

When you spend so much of your time on the road, there are so many spaces between the spaces. So, some time between about 1989 and 1992, Bob Dylan took up drawing again. He'd drawn in the past, a great deal in the 1960s. In fact, after that mysterious motorcycle accident of his, he even spent some time in the bowels of Carnegie Hall being tutored in art by a Russian professor of painting. We'd seen his artwork on the sleeves of his albums, too – that strange, startled moon face that stares out at us from Self Portrait, for example, or that bristling sheaf of stark faces on the cover of Planet Waves.

When Dylan drew way back in the 1960s, he was trying to capture the essences of the simplest things – a cigarette packet, for example. Drawing, he said then, clarified the eye. It gave a kind of order to the world's unruliness. Fast forward to the newer work, and we see that Dylan is still after what he was pursuing in those days: the simplest of things – cityscapes, a tenement block – caught on the wing.

After Dylan had finished this body of work, many of the images he'd made got transferred to deckle-edged paper, and he added colour so that he could turn his drawings into paintings. So this is what we have now, a body of work – landscapes, still lifes, portraits – by the man who never stands still for more than two seconds together.

Where does Dylan come from as a painter? The work we see here is an amalgam of a kind of raw, untutored American folksiness of the kind that Dylan himself would have seen in the drawings that illustrated his great hero Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, and something else. Yet there is more to Dylan the painter than America. Nor is Dylan just an outsider artist. He is also a man who has seen a lot of the kind of revolutionary art that was being made in Moscow, London, Berlin and Paris from the first decade of the 20th century onwards, from Die Brücke to Cubism.

So Dylan's work is full of the spirit of all sorts of other artists – in one of his portraits we catch sight of more than a hint of Munch's Madonna; in some of his strangely vertiginous interiors – interiors that feel so psychologically uneasy – we seem to be feeling the spirit of Chaim Soutine, who could never paint a house on the vertical. In yet another, we seem to be seeing work that is an embodiment of what the Russians did with Cubism from about 1912 onwards – they took all that marvellous angularity out into the streets. All sorts of influences are teeming in from everywhere.

Something else shocks us about this show. It is the sheer pleasure that Dylan seems to be taking in the making. There is a sweet and almost Matisse-like lyricism when he lays the colours down. All these places and all these things – those train tracks that never stop receding; that bicycle repair yard – feel like hallowed places. There are no palaces here, no monuments, only the stuff that any eye might see and feel a part of. This show feels like a hymn of praise to the sweet ordinariness of life.

And is Dylan a great painter? Well, let's say that he is spasmodically brilliant – in Still Life with Peaches, for example, which looks like some kind of a wonderful homage to Degas. Some of the portraits, on the other hand, are crude in the extreme, but even those crude things have a kind of indomitable, feisty New Orleans-ish crudeness about them. Even the crude things are likeable and engaging because Dylan himself is so enduringly fascinating. If this were only one tiny piece of the jigsaw puzzle of his extraordinary life, we would still want to pick it up and examine it from all sides.

Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, Halcyon Gallery, London W1 (020-7499 4508), from 14 June

Win a signed Bob Dylan print

The Independent has teamed up with the UK’s leading fine art publishers, Washington Green, to give away a limited-edition graphic of Bob Dylan’s Sunday Afternoon, signed by Dylan himself and worth £1,000. To be in with a chance of winning, email your answer to the following question to competitions@independent.co.uk :

At which venue did an audience member famously call Bob Dylan "Judas"?

The Drawn Blank Series will be unveiled to the public at 27 Castle Galleries art stores and at select galleries across the UK. See www.washingtongreen.co.uk for details.

Terms and conditions: Email your answer to competitions@independent.co.uk. Entries must be received by 13 June. Winners will be picked at random and notified by telephone or email on 16 June. The Editor’s decision is final. Only one entry per household. See www.independent.co.uk/legal for standard Independent terms and conditions. No purchase necessary.

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