The pieces in Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan, the current exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, really need to be seen together (as they obviously are at this show), in order to fully appreciate exactly how subversive they are. Each is a huge poster size "blowup" of an imagined magazine cover. Viewed together, they present the viewer with social commentary as biting and incisive as that contained in any of the artist's early songs.
Walking through the exhibit, one passes thirty blowups of "imagined" magazine covers. While some might fool the viewer into thinking at first glance they were real, others contain shocking content (such as Jack Ruby playing cards with strippers) or pornographic images that reveal them at once to be impostures. Interestingly, all the works refer back to the 1960's. I don't think this represents nostalgia on Dylan's part, though, as much as it does a nod to pop art. Just as Warhol neatly repackaged everyday consumer items into artworks and then used them as a reflection of his own dystopian era, so does Dylan in his current work and for roughly that same period. This is a turbulent era as reimagined through the eyes of one of its major players.
The Gagosian deserves credit for putting on this exhibit in the first place. The gallery had already received a great deal of criticism in the media for putting on a show by an "amateur artist." As a particularly uninformed article in The Huffington Post states in reference to Dylan's "Asia" series:
"Let's be honest, the Gagosian gallery is partly to blame here for giving an amateur artist valuable real estate... But his artwork is essentially unknown, and as such, the Gagosian should have known better than featuring 18 examples of what's turning out to be Bob Dylan: The Paint By Numbers Edition."
While I agree that exhibits of "celebrity art" are always suspect, it is not as though the artist in this instance were the empty headed star of a reality show. For over fifty years, Bob Dylan has been a major force in American culture. There can be no doubt today of either his genius or his artistry. If at this point Dylan wishes to express himself in any media, his work most definitely deserves a forum at a major venue.
Charges of plagiarism have also surfaced just as they did at the artist's prior show. This is an especially sensitive point for the Gagosian in light of the recent Richard Prince lawsuit in which it was involved. I should note that the gallery attendant with whom I spoke assured me that Dylan had received permission from the original photographers to use the images shown in his work. But can it be considered plagiarism in the first place when artifacts of a given culture are later used by artists to comment on the nature of the society that created it? In this case, at least, I think not.
The exhibit continues through January 12th.