As our retrospective exhibition of Bob Dylan’s iconic ‘Drawn Blank Series’ comes rolling to an end I thought it would be a good time to discuss a topic that comes up time and time again when talking to visitors in the gallery. Why is one of the simplest images that Dylan creates, Train Tracks, so magnetic? Why does it draw almost everyone who walks into the gallery towards it? Like a tiny star it gravitates swathes of people and mesmerizes them with its deeply affecting subject matter. On our walls at the moment we have the set of four color ways, red, blue, green and white which each have a very distinctive atmosphere and effect on the viewer which exemplifies Dylan’s mastery of color as subject. Like Rothko and Barnett Newman before him he appreciates the power and emotional resonance of the colors on his pallet.
So why are Train Tracks such a powerful subject matter? Well there are the obvious biographical connections to Dylan. He spent large portions of his adolescence hobo-ing around the States, jumping freight trains, embracing the life of a wandering, folk playing, mystic. This would be one reason for the attraction to the Train Tracks but it doesn’t fully explain the appeal. I have met people who know next to nothing about Dylan’s life and career who are still compelled to stand and stare at the images. They seem to pluck at a subconscious chord deep at the back of the mind where symbolism is stored. It was pointed out to me by a man who is obviously a lot more switched on than me that the single train track is calming to look at, it symbolically stands for the lack of need to decide. The rails stretch out over the horizon as far as we can see and so allow us to feel a sense of direction and guidance that is unusual in our choice laden society. There is one way, and it is forwards. Its actually a lovely sentiment when you think about it. This point was enforced beyond my ability to disagree when the same customer pointed towards a Lorenzo Quinn sculpture that was sat very near to our Dylan display called ‘Decisions’. The image of a decision to be made reflected by the splitting of train tracks, how could I argue?
The laying of train tracks has quite distinct historical and cultural meaning in the U.S.A and U.K. Here in Britain the train was part and parcel with the drive in the 19th century towards modernity. The Industrial revolution was powered by steam and so was the train. The laying of tracks across Britain heralded the march of progress, the end of an agricultural poor nation and the rise of the industrial rich. In America the story is slightly different. The railroads were initially seen as a threat to the wild, free expanse of the west. After the American civil war many of the defeated confederate soldiers had headed across the country to start new lives away from the victorious union. The blasting of tunnels, laying of rails and connectivity of east and west was an unwelcome intrusion which brought the whole of what we now consider the U.S.A. together as one. In short, the arrival of the train removed the ability of those who wished to, to escape union interference. This early unease with the train was soon overlooked and by the turn of the century Americans had fallen in love with rails. The beat generation writers of the nineteen fifties such as Jack Kerouac and William S Boroughs created images of semi-divine box car hobo heroes who’s adventures were as iconic-ally American as those of Huckleberry Finn. I think the sentiment is summed up perfectly by Kerouac in his novel ‘On The Road’, the protagonist Sal Paradise has this to say “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” I appreciate that at this point in the novel they are travelling by car but the sentiment reminds me very much of what I think Dylan is getting at in the Train Tracks image. The rails stretch out into eternity and so everything and anything is possible.