On view in the front room of NOMA is Bob Dylan: The New Orleans Series. The ten paintings will be switched out this coming week for ten others until the show closes on July 31. There is a familiar feeling in Dylan’s visual art of his intricately woven narratives. Dylan takes seemingly banal events and locations and, like an alchemist, turns them into a hazy, but meaningful memory.
You know something’s going on. Oil-saturated stories—characters recognized from either a dream or just the canon of American storytelling. If only the hands and eyes of his subjects were visible, you’d still feel the tension of the scene. There’s elements of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec in the intentional muddiness of the palette, maybe coming from the Mississippi they all knew. The seemingly rough handedness of the work is balanced by the carefully constructed composition of each piece.
Like his music, there’s a great sense of effortlessness to his painting. After the first superficial glance, you begin to look into each work and realize there’s a lot more going on than you initially considered. Ghosts are present in the heavily layered background. Like realizing the longing beauty in the fourth verse of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, there is so much more to take in if you sit a minute.
Dylan wrings the emotion out of his characters like the sweat from a mechanic’s back-pocket bandana. The brooding subject in “Dance Hall” is staring at you and through you and past you all at the same time and you can’t help but wonder where their partner is and what recently went down. “Train Station” and “Rescue Team” might be film stills or the basis of a film or just a flicker of a bygone era left as myth in the American Mind. Similarly, “Minister” and “Churchgoers” captures a reverence and strength in its universal anonymity and the soul-settling sincerity of the subjects.
Perhaps the most lyrical piece is “Jockey Club”—a razor resting menacingly on the bare throat of a moustachioed guitarist. The barber, a Sweeney Todd/Johnny Cash hybrid sneers, brow furrowed as a chorus of onlookers angle in to catch the action in horror, disbelief and amusement. Similarly, are we to take in the show—a fluid, dreaminess that leaves us wanting the rest of the story, while knowing the rest of the story is just the constant conversations and ideations within the theatres of our minds mixed with the constant stimuli of our city. Dylan sets the scene for us to finish.
Bob Dylan: The New Orleans Series is on view until July 31, 2016 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.