This untitled drawing centres on a tree with a cartoon face. Suspended by a rope around his neck, a boy hangs from one of the tree’s upper branches on the right side of the image. On the left, under its wide-eyed and disapproving stare, a naked boy copulates with the base of its trunk. His brown clothes and hat lie strewn on the grass beside him; behind him, a dog of the same colour sits up and begs. The hanged boy’s feet dangle over the horizon of a rural landscape comprising a ploughed field enclosed by fences and bushes and a broad area of grass in which the tree is set. This is extremely unusual in Dzama’s drawings which normally feature figures – humans and anthropomorphised or hybridised animals and plants – floating on an empty page. Here, an irregular shaped chunk of landscape forms the base out of which the central tree character and a more naturalistic tree in the background to its left grow. The greens and browns that colour the landscape are repeated in the hanging boy’s clothes and hair. Compositionally balancing the two boys, two red parrot-like birds perch on branches and flowers of a similar shade dot the grass and the background tree. A small wooden cross emerges from behind the tree trunk, suggesting the presence of a grave. On its horizontal plank tiny letters that could spell the artist’s name ‘Marcel’ are written.
Like the depiction of landscape in this image, a tree that apparently grows from the earth is extremely rare in Dzama’s paintings and drawings. Tree characters feature frequently in his work, both in the form of costumes on humans and mannequins (reproduced in Tree with Roots, pp.81–2) and as enigmatic hybridised characters in his drawings. Usually they appear as tall trunks with bare branches towering over human legs, as in the row of figures wearing tree-costumes that cover their bodies from the knee up portrayed in T12589. Other images show a more ambiguous division between human and tree, as in T12581 and T12583, where men with tree-trunk heads and brown, branching hands interact with human figures. The artist has related his tree imagery 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 has commented: ‘there are parts of Winnipeg where you see these trees and they look rotten. Ants have moved in, they look deformed, and they have these weird faces – they’re like spooky characters I would draw.’ (Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.15.)
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 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. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink. Influenced by the comics that he read prolifically as a child, Dzama’s figures are highly stylised, containing the minimum of detail necessary to convey character and a fragment of narrative.
Dzama’s use of watercolour as a principal medium to express the world of his inner life recalls the hand-coloured relief etchings created by the Romantic poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827). Dzama’s tree characters were in part derived from imagery in Blake’s illustrations (1824–7) for the Divine Comedy 1308–21 written by Dante Alighieri (c.1265–1321). In particular, an image entitled The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and The Suicides, from Dante’s Hell, Canto 13 (reproduced in The Course of Human History Personified, p.24), shows a group of trees containing unhappy-looking humans. Dzama recalls the impact of seeing Blake’s trees on his own imagery: ‘I was really blown away ... before, I was drawing tree characters but they were cartoon-looking, long-nosed things. His were so much better – these subtle, suffering characters – because they were condemned to live in these trees for committing suicide: that was their punishment.’ (Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.12.) Unlike Blake’s tragic figures, the trees in Dzama’s drawings have a child-like comic-book character, although often, as in T12586, they are pictured in a world of cruelty and death. While the figure hanging from the tree branch is a recurring motif in Dzama’s drawings, the boy penetrating the trunk recalls a well-known moving installation by the American artist Paul McCarthy (born 1949). McCarthy’s work The Garden 1991/2 (reproduced in Dan Cameron, Amelia Jones and Anthony Vidler, exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2001, pp.154–7) satirises masculine stereotypes by presenting a father and son in a small section of rural landscape copulating with a tree and the earth respectively. By contrast, the dream quality of Dzama’s image distances it from its popular culture references and allies it closer to the iconography and mood of surrealism.
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.