Naked Frog People, Root Beer, & Dancing Bears: The Art of Marcel Dzama
I'm a bit late posting about the recent Marcel Dzama exhibition at David Zwirner in Chelsea. It was an ambitious installation of drawings, dioramas, and—perhaps the most spectacular piece—a film with live piano accompaniment.
Dzama is a Canadian artist known most for his earthy ink/watercolor drawings populated by fabulous characters. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes sinister, ... often both.
Though some were underwhelmed by the show, I left even more awed by both the breadth and depth of Dzamas work. The film (The Lotus Eaters) especially gave a glimpse into the Dzama's surreal dream-realm. Like Henry Darger, but less hermetic, Dzama's individual pieces are all part of a larger gestalt, an alternate, manila-hued reality brought to life with Dzama's palette of red wine and diluted root beer syrup.
The work is accessible in its simplicity and directness, but also enigmatic and deep with psychoanalytical meaning and literary/historical allusions, in the same way that old fables and fairy tales are. Much of the work deals with human/nature interactions, mythical creatures and hybridization, detainment/escape, disguise—old fantasy tropes, but catapulted into a modern world of terrorism, fetishization, and political antagonisms.
On the Banks of the River by Marcel Dzama
I really think the power of Dzama's work lies in its handling of the ambiguity between fantasy and nightmare. Just as much of the Brothers Grimm tales related seemingly simple moral lessons with dense and dark substrata of psychological fears. There are so many rich politico-social implications to the common theme in Dzama's pieces of sleeping/dancing with the enemy/predator. The sexualization of antagonism. Just as with the macabre erotic undertones of "Little Red Riding Hood," interesting tensions and power dynamics are lent a whimsical but disturbing sensuality. Dzama's characters are often being chased by the bear on one side of door and dancing with it on the other.
The show, for me at least, further established Dzama's strengths as an artist. His interests and inspirations are wide-reaching, and his art is likewise open to varying levels of appreciation and interpretation.
McSweeney's just released their second collection of Dzama's "elegant, enigmatic bears, bats, and sexy ladies," titled The Berliner Ensemble Thanks You All. In typical McSweeney's fashion, it is a stunning future artifact, consisting of an envelope with 28 loose-leaf prints plus other assorted treats. It's a fantastic package and a great way to peek through the peep-hole into Dzama's singular dreamworld.
Also worth noting is The Royal Art Lodge, which Dzama helped found in Winnipeg in 1996. The group collaborates on drawings and paintings that must make Dave Eggers giddy.