This untitled drawing shows a group of seven human figures wearing costumes that transform them into trees. The lower parts of their legs and feet – clad in what appear to be plus fours and long boots – emerge from the bases of long wooden trunks that extend upwards into clusters of bare branches forking into twigs. Each trunk has a pair of cartoon eyes and a mouth permanently caught in an expressive ‘o’. The figures stand in an approximate row, positioned with a roughly equal distance between them. Drawn in black ink and coloured in brown watercolour paint, they float in the neutral ground provided by the creamy Manila paper on which they are depicted, with no further clues as to the fragment of narrative evoked.
T12589 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 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. Although his larger composite drawings are often landscape in format, it is unusual for a smaller drawing to be landscape as is the case here.
As in T12589, the figures portrayed in Dzama’s drawings are almost always set in empty 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 connected the many tree and animal characters that appear in his drawings, paintings, films and installations to the Canadian wilderness. Tree trunk costumes feature frequently in Dzama’s iconography, both in the form of actual costumes worn by actors or mannequins (reproduced in Tree with Roots, pp.81–2) and as enigmatic characters in his drawings, as here. The leafless trunks and branches are familiar to the artist from his home environment, as he has explained: ‘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.) Variants on the row of humans clad in tree costumes depicted in T12589 include a wide-eyed tree being sexually penetrated by a naked boy while the corpse of a clothed boy hangs from one of its branches in T12586; and human figures whose heads are shortened trunks sprouting branches depicted in T12581 and T12583. On his larger, composite drawings, such as Vagabonds and Blood from the Earth 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.62), tower-like tree costumes with several sets of eyes recall the conglomerations of animal and bird heads stacked one above the other in Inuit totems. Dzama juxtaposes these tall tree costumes with depictions of actual native Canadian totems as similar towering costumes in the drawing entitled Shelley’s Historic Morning 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.55). The artist has cited Inuit art as a significant early influence, comparing its mythologies and creatures with surrealism (Tree with Roots, p.11). Anthropomorphised animals and trees also feature in comics, cartoons and fairy tales all of which have contributed elements to Dzama’s imagery.
Dzama’s use of watercolour as a principal medium to express the world of his personal mythology recalls the hand-coloured relief etchings created by the Romantic poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827). Dzama’s tree characters were in part developed 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 work: ‘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 drawing are typically ambiguous, their fusion of faux naivety and latent creepiness resulting in a psychological dimension that evokes the uncanny.
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.