This untitled drawing shows a group of six naked humans approaching a clothed bear. Standing upright on two legs, the bear wears a long green gown or coat that is closed at the throat and covers its body; its human pose and the scale of its hands and feet suggests that it may be a human wearing a bear mask rather than a bear behaving like a human. Of the group of five men and a single woman, four display grisly wounds: an arm has been severed at the shoulder; a foot and ankle have been removed at mid calf; a triangular wedge has been cut from a head removing the entire face from forehead to cheekbone to chin; and intestines flop out of a vertical slit in the stomach and chest of a man, who gestures expressively with his left hand while attempting to push them back in with his right. Two of these unfortunate characters reach out towards the bear as though in supplication; the two people without wounds – a man and a woman in the background – hold their arms across their chests as though in self-protection. Drawn in black ink and coloured in watercolour paint, the figures float in the neutral ground provided by the creamy Manila paper on which they have been depicted, with no further clues as to the narrative evoked.
T12580 is typical of Dzama’s drawings which are 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 (http:www.kultureflash.net/archive/199/priview.html accessed 19 November 2009). To make larger images, he joins many small pages. At first they were made using pencil, over which Dzama would draw with ink, before filling in the forms with watercolour and root beer – 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. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink.
As in T12580, the figures depicted in Dzama’s drawings usually float in space without any form of ground. He has related this to the landscape around Winnipeg, in the state of Manitoba, Canada where he grew up, remaining there until he moved to New York in 2004. He explained:
the isolation of the place really influenced the background of the drawings and paintings, in that there’s this empty vastness that’s behind them, like the white snow. It was really strange to walk just outside of the city, because it’s such a flat, prairie area – it just goes on and on and on – and it’s just white sky, white ground, so it disappears, especially if you go to a lake or something where it just keeps going.
(Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.11.)
Similarly, he has related the many archetypal animal figures that appear in his drawings, paintings, films and installations, to the Canadian wildlife. The bear recurs particularly frequently, possibly as a development of the teddy bear he based a comic book on as a child (Tree with Roots, p.11). Dzama has also suggested that the bears in his drawings have been influenced by a statue of the Berlin bear that he bought on a visit to that city, and which he kept on his desk for a time (Tree with Roots, p.13). Sometimes the animals in Dzama’s drawings retain their fully animal forms – like the singing cats in T12587, and the bats, horses, deer, frogs, birds and dogs that feature in many similar drawings. In others, as in T12580, the animal characteristics have the appearance of a costume comprising a long-necked mask and a furry body suit which has its three-dimensional equivalent in real costumes that Dzama has created as sculptural versions of the works on paper (reproduced Tree with Roots, pp.82–7). His fusion of human and animal figures stems in part from an early interest native Canadian art, in the mythology and imagery of which species are often intertwined. Anthropomorphised animals feature frequently in comics, cartoons and children’s stories which have also been significant influences on the artist. He has commented that the mood in his images stems from fairy tales, ‘from reading them when I was younger and wondering why they were so violent’ (quoted in Tree with Roots, p.13). At the same time, the extreme cruelty of the imagery in T12580 may be related to experiences in the artist’s childhood which marked him deeply: visiting his grandparents and cousins’ farms in the small towns near Winnipeg, where cattle and chickens were slaughtered, and his cousins would torment him by throwing pieces of the dead animals at him (Tree with Roots, p.15).
Dzama’s drawings offer narratives that are never overtly spoken but remain ambiguous, allowing for many possible readings. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their muted colours and stylised characters have an old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of children’s cartoons and book illustrations of the 1930s. Their disturbed psychological dimension – often a direct response to current affairs being discussed on the radio (Dzama in The Last Winter, [p.1.]) – recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s dream-like iconography with twentieth-century popular culture.
Marcel Dzama, The Last Winter, London 2004.
Marcel Dzama: Tree with Roots, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 2006.