Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A news service I subscribe to (weisslink) carried a NY Times article on the controversy surrounding Bob Dylan's current exhibition of paintings, "The Asia Series", at Gagosian Gallery. While some have accused Dylan of painting from existing photos (by Cartier-Bresson, Busy and Kessel), others have said that Dylan's "quotation" and "borrowing" is "as old as the hills in poetry, traditional songs and visual art," which is true (see the "conceptual writing" of Dan Farrell, the overheard songs of A. P. Carter and the rephotography of Richard Prince).

Dylan's mentor, Woody Guthrie, often rewrote lyrics to familiar songs, inverting their original intention to form a critique of that intention, like Joe Hill did when he rewrote a Christian song of compliance ("There is Power in the Blood of the Lamb") as a labour rally singalong ("There is Power in the Union"). Same structure (chords and melody), different materials (lyrical content).

What Dylan has accomplished in his "Asia Series", whether he intended to or not, is a re-examination of "Orientalism", a construction of the Asian subject through Western eyes. By reinscribing these photographic compositions in paint, he is, in effect, rereading them, taking the viewer with him, causing us to look again -- not only at their narrative structure but at the colours he has chosen, and why.

Woody Guthrie romanticized The People as he wrote them into his audience. I am not sure Dylan shared Guthrie's optimism, particularly after his move from rural Minnesota to New York City. Dylan's "Asia Series", like his song lyrics, is less an indifferent affirmation than a sly provocation. Whether The People get it is beside the point. This is something the Gagosian Gallery understands.

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