This untitled drawing shows two men in old-fashioned evening dress standing on either side of a rectangular board on a fragile easel. The man on the right gestures towards the text on the board which reads: ‘Notice! /I’ve changed my name to Mr Titties /Thank you for your time.’ Wearing a long brown coat, a bowtie and a top hat, each man carries a cane. The gentleman on the right leans on his, holding his other hand to his hip as though in surprise or consternation. His narrow moustache curls at the ends, recalling fashions in the Edwardian era. The cane in the hand of the gentleman on the left has a hinged head with a prominent bolt, together evoking the beak and eye of a bird. Cut off at the knee, the two men float on the blank page without any supporting background to add to the suggested narrative. It is very unusual for Dzama’s figures to be cropped in this way, although the empty space around them is a regular feature of the artist’s drawings, which he has related to the vast emptiness of the landscape around the city of Winnipeg in Canada, where he was based until 2004, when he relocated to New York.

Drawing is central to Dzama’s practice, usually done on the same small scale pieces of paper, initiated as a result of being forced to work in a hotel room after his house burned down ( accessed 19 November 2009). To make larger images, he joins many small pages. At first they were made using pencil, over which he would draw with ink, before filling in the forms with watercolour and root beer syrup – a substance he discovered creates a shade of brown he particularly likes and cannot get from any other medium. Around 2000, Dzama stopped using pencil to create the outlines and began using pen directly. Influenced by the comics that he read voraciously as a child, Dzama’s figures are highly stylised, containing the minimum of detail necessary to convey character and a fragment of narrative. Text is not a common feature in his drawings, which constitute the distillation of ideas explored in his scrapbooks and notebooks, where collaged elements from many sources combine with stream-of-consciousness and explanatory texts, often written in a highly personal vein.

Figures are often doubled or repeated in groups in Dzama’s paintings and drawings, which present fictional species – anthropomorphised and hybridised animals and plants – and humans interacting in various ways. Uniforms and costumes inspired by the garments of such 1940s cartoon characters as John Kirby’s Captain America – worn by two groups of women in T12583, for example – emphasise the notion of stereotypes that is central to the psychology of the comic strip. Dzama uses a dull palette dominated by shades of browns, greens and greys, enlivened occasionally by splashes of vermilion.

He has commented: ‘I like the idea of keeping the image quite loose, so it really is open to some sort of interpretation ... drawing what kind of ... happened during the day, it’s almost like a cleansing or something to draw things, just get it out of your system. Maybe it’s a loose therapy or something like that.’ (BBC Collective interview,

, accessed 19 November 2009.)

Like the text and image works of the British artist David Shrigley (born 1968), Dzama’s drawings have a faux-naïve style, belied by their more sophisticated and often hidden content. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of children’s book illustrations from the war years is reassuringly familiar, while their disturbed psychological dimension recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s iconography with twentieth-century popular culture.

Further reading:
Marcel Dzama, The Last Winter, London 2004.
The Course of Human History Personified: Marcel Dzama, exhibition catalogue, David Zwirner, New York 2005.
Marcel Dzama: Tree with Roots, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 2006.

Elizabeth Manchester
December 2009