Mr Paintbrush Man: Bob Dylan’s new paintings reveal he remains culture’s most elusive shapeshifter

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Bob Dylan had a busy lockdown. One of the world’s greatest living singer-songwriters, and certainly its most intriguing, spent much of 2020 and 2021 in his California workshop painting dozens of large canvases inspired by scenes from films.

One picture features four men playing cards, another a boxing match, while a third depicts a bedraggled woman drinking and smoking alone at a bar. The paintings are snapshots of unresolved moments, populated – largely – by lonely characters in urban American settings. Films referenced include the 1981 Willem Dafoe biker movie The Loveless and the 1971 blaxploitation drama Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree. Stylistically, it’s as though Dylan has taken the realism of Edward Hopper for a big night out on Desolation Row and left it reeking of nicotine, gasoline and regret.

Forty of these paintings, collectively called Deep Focus, form a major part of Bob Dylan: Retrospectrum, an exhibition of nearly 200 artworks at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami. It’s the first comprehensive North American exhibition of Dylan’s visual art in his 60-year career (it follows a different iteration of Retrospectrum in Shanghai in 2019, and a stint in London is planned). The show comprises seven themed sections ranging from pencil drawings to vast acrylic triptychs and from sketches inspired by his lyrics to ironwork sculptures and gates made from horseshoes, spanners and other old tools (that’s right, Bob Dylan welds gates from junk rather well, as it happens). The exhibition reveals another side – or sides– to the man who, at 80, remains one of culture’s most elusive shapeshifters.

“Seeing many of my works years after I completed them is a fascinating experience,” says Dylan in the brochure. “I don’t really associate them with any particular time or place or state of mind, but view them as part of a long arc; a continuing of the way we go forth in the world and the way our perceptions are shaped and altered by life.”

The man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman is “arguably the most iconic American artist alive,” says Shai Baitel, Retrospectrum’s artistic director, as we walk around the exhibition. More than just a poet and songwriter, the exhibition’s brochure claims Dylan to be a “true, contemporary Renaissance man” whose work spans mediums and disciplines. If comparing him to Leonardo or Michelangelo is hyperbolic, the breadth of work is impressive.

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