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In April the New Orleans Museum of Art began exhibiting part of a series of Bob Dylan’s paintings, ten works the luminary created after time spent in the Crescent City exploring and recording music. It’s an interesting collection – speaking to the way to artist viewed New Orleans’ architecture, people, and maybe most of all, feeling.

Dylan’s work captures an ever present tension in the city between joy and sadness, between revelatory celebration and danger. As he wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles, “There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door. Either that, or somebody crying with their head in their hands.”

The exhibition hall, NOMA.

'Rampart St Courtyard,' by Bob Dylan.

'Rescue Team,' by Bob Dylan.

NOMA

The exhibit occupies the main entrance of the museum, with paintings on either side of two opposing walls, separated by an expansive, open space and two series of tall, white columns. The stark white works well with his preferred subdued color palette of grays, blues, browns and black.

The exception to this color scheme comes largely from flowers, surrounding private French Quarter courtyards depicted in several of his paintings. In Chronicles, Dylan describes New Orleans’ “gardens full of flower bedecked shrines. Bougainvillea and purple oleander stimulate your senses and make you feel cool and clear inside.”

His traditional depictions of French Quarter alleyways and courtyard represent the lighter side of the exhibit. There’s no tension in these works. They feel more like genuine expressions of appreciation from an outsider looking in on something unfamiliar. It’s Dylan’s renderings of individual subjects that show a sense of his deeper understanding of life in New Orleans.

...going around any corner, there’s the promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting started. Bob Dylan

These pieces examine a variety of subjects. Black churchgoers sing together holding hands, a group of men in top hats surround a barber, mid-shave, with a blade at someone’s neck.

In another piece titled Rope, coils of thick rope constrain the torso of a nude woman. In Rescue Team, a man dressed as Zorro carries a slack woman through a dark corridor. It’s hard to say whether or not something sinister lurks in these representations. They’re certainly far removed from his drawings of courtyards.

The paintings also span time and space indeterminately – in an ode to the way Dylan viewed New Orleans’ relationship to the past. He sees the city as a place where time moves differently, writing “there’s one day at a time here, then it’s tonight and tomorrow will be today again.” He feels an ever-present sense of the weight of the past, part of which arises from tombs and cemeteries. “The first thing you notice is the burying grounds,” he says.

Rather than showing burial sites directly, his works sometimes feature ghostlike figures, anachronistically waiting in the background of his paintings, expressionless. There’s a range of emotions within the exhibit, from banal to confusing to joyful.

This is a part of looking at the high and the low within New Orleans. He sees beauty in the city’s French Quarter courtyards, but also in churches and barbershops. It’s all part of the rhythm of the city.

The collection comes from a series of sketches Dylan published in 2010 called Drawn Blank. Many of the New Orleans’ pieces in that work span 1989-1992, when Dylan spent time in the city and recorded his album Oh, Mercy.

Previously exhibited in Milan in 2013, the series includes 23 paintings. NOMA recently switched out the works, allowing viewers to experience a different view of Dylan’s New Orleans, where “going around any corner, there’s the promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting started.”

A lot of talk surrounding the exhibit centers on Dylan’s worth as a painter, and the artist has diehard supporters as well as detractors. A better way to approach these works is imagining the singer’s relationship to the city, and what his paintings can teach us about New Orleans. It’s worth considering the city from the eyes of an American visionary, who looked beyond what many people see.

Admission is $10.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, and $6.50 for kids. NOMA is free for Louisiana residents on Wednesdays.

All photos by Roman Alokhin.

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The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

WWNO

WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

WWOZ

WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

PRC

Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

NOMA

As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

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