This untitled drawing shows a group of humans and hybrid human-giraffe figures intertwined with plant forms on a single plane in the style of an illuminated manuscript. From a series of thick green branching stems, shoots and tendrils spread outwards over the page, giving rise to simple leaves and red flowers of more than one species. An ornately decorated frame appears to grow from one of the branches; sprouting above it, two red fruits with cartoon faces look down on the scene on the page. Several small creatures that resemble puppet heads without bodies peer out of the frame’s ovoid dark opening. Their long necks echo the necks of several giraffe figures in the image: two disembodied heads on giraffe necks that float among the greenery and two giraffe-men that appear to be copulating with naked ladies – one couple sitting on top of a third fruit head; the other on the ground beside a curving stem. Nearby, a naked woman supported by a plant strokes the shoulders of her partner who kneels with his head in her lap; on the left side of the image, partially concealed by red flowers, a naked male figure watches and masturbates. Three identical brown cats sitting on a thick supporting stem are singing; musical notes float above their open mouths.
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. 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 a role and a fragment of narrative.
Groups of similar figures are a recurring motif 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 – as in the flowers in this image. The theme of abundance coupled with erotic pleasure and hybridised natural forms recalls the central panel of the famous early Renaissance triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights c.1503 (Museo del Prado, Madrid) painted by Hieronymous Bosch (c.1415–1516). In Bosch’s painting, groups of virtually identical humans feast on and play with enlarged fruits and animals (birds and fish), some of which have merged with human forms. Where the principal preoccupation of Bosch’s figures is eating, in Dzama’s drawing the notion of voyeurism appears paramount, not only through the masturbating man, but also the comically witnessing fruits and several wide-eyed amorphous puppet heads dotted around the page. Like the disembodied giraffe heads, their bottom edges appear to have been cut from a body, suggesting the violence of severance and decapitation at odds with the Edenic vision of plenty.
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 book illustrations from the 1930s is reassuringly familiar, while their disturbed psychological dimension recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s 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.