This untitled drawing shows a group of seven naked female figures supporting a grey cloud-like mass. Cartoon faces delineated by crudely drawn eyes, noses and mouths crowd the grey mass, suggesting that it is a conglomerate of characters. The women hold their legs together and point their toes, floating in empty space. This neutral background is a standard feature in Dzama’s drawings which typically portray figures – human and anthropomorphised or hybridised animals and trees – interacting without a background. Here the figures appear to be airborne, their group pose suggesting a public performance or a ritual of some kind. The women’s features are blank and their bodies nearly identical in form; small variations in hair style and colour are all that distinguish them from each other. The rounded grey mass supported above their heads evokes a group of clouds whose round eyes and elongated mouths convey a mood of comical anxiety. Similar characters in the background of a painting entitled Ghost Park 2004 (reproduced in The Last Winter, [p.21]) and in a cloudy mass in the title sequence of Dzama’s 2006 film, Sad Ghost (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.122), indicate that they represent ghosts.
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 (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 he drew 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. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink.
Groups of similar figures are a recurring motif in Dzama’s paintings and drawings, which often present fictional species and humans at war. 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 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 – often used to colour flowers, as in T12587, and birds, as in T12586. His stylised faux naïf figures and his frequent depiction of nudity have led to comparisons with the work of the outsider artist Henry Darger (1892–1973), whose pictures of a fictional group of seven saintly sisters and child princesses – the Vivian Girls – began to enter the language of popular culture in the late 1970s. Dzama’s influences range from the Inuit art he became familiar with growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, through comic books and films to the imagery of the Romantic artist and poet William Blake (1757–1827).
Offering narratives that are never overtly spoken but remain ambiguous, Dzama’s images allow for many possible readings. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their old-fashioned aesthetic, reminiscent of children’s comics and book illustrations from the 1930s, is reassuringly familiar in spite of the frequently extreme cruelty being enacted by and to characters who usually appear oblivious to their pain. This 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.
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.