Bob Dylan is fascinated by gates because “they can shut you in or shut you out”. This exhibition is full of them: sculptures of closed iron doors, hanging on the wall of the gallery or free standing. Their large solid frames contain not bars but the stuff of junk yards: car parts, and meat grinders, and springs.
The sculptures are better than Dylan’s series of pastel portraits at The National Portrait Gallery earlier this year. They are difficult to fault in terms of composition. However, they are too inoffensive. Whereas the portraits snarled out at the viewer, menacing and lyrical, matching the tone of much of Dylan’s music, these appear almost jolly. They need some bite.
"Untitled II" (2012-13) is a sculpture of a gate, its doors fastened shut with a spanner twisted out of shape, large nails splayed at the base. Mechanical rods and cogs and wheels are arranged to create a semblance of symmetry. "Untitled I" (2012-13) has no doors; a silhouetted bird stands on a thick iron chain. The machinery is welded together with blobs of bronze that look like glue, testament to the fact that Dylan has made these sculptures himself, without relying on a team of assistants, which is impressive.
Rather than pointing to the nightmare of mechanical anarchy, of form estranged from function, of a post-apocalyptic time when the world has transformed into an industrial wasteland and its last surviving inhabitants must forage through the toxic waste to create fortresses for themselves, Dylan’s touch is light.
There seems to be a friendliness, even warmth, in his relationship with these mechanical parts, which can be explained by his roots in Hibbing, Minnesota, “The Iron Range” of the USA. The local government website still bears the slogan: We’re Ore And More. Rich iron ore was discovered there in the 19th century, which prompted the arrival of waves of immigrant workers. But industry began to decline from the 1950s on; now the area relies on tourism.
In this light, the sculptures appear more poignant. They recall the grass-roots political moments of Dylan’s music, laments of working-class struggle against big power. The sculptures do not seem nostalgic, however. The only slightly fey touches are the small bronze buffalos that appear in each piece, engraved with Dylan’s signature. These are cutesy pieces of Americana kitsch.
There is kitsch too in the addition of small bronze guitars and musical notes, welded to the gates. While they point to Dylan’s music, they undermine the seriousness of the works, which follow the tradition of other artists mesmerized by the aesthetic possibilities of machinery: Ferdinand Leger’s “mechanical” phase in the 1920s and Eva Hesse’s wonderful, productive year in Germany in 1965, when she created sculptural paintings from the machine parts strewn over the textile factory floor where she worked.
Hesse’s sculptures are exuberant, rather than jolly: their geometric angles coalesce into organic forms. That dynamism is absent here, but Dylan proves himself to be a talented polymath rather than a hobbyist.
Bob Dylan's 'Mood Swings' at the Halcyon Gallery runs until 25 Jan