Marcel Dzama



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Marcel Dzama born 1974
Ink and watercolour on paper
350 × 280 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2005, accessioned 2008


This untitled drawing shows a band of four musicians performing. The lead singer’s brown head resembles a tree stump or root bole, with a forked branch extending upwards on one side. His features are human and his mouth is open in song while he strums on a slate-coloured miniature guitar with brown hands. Standing a little way behind him, his backing band comprises three figures wearing identical costumes: green A-line skirts the same shade as his short-sleeved sports shirt. The upper bodies of the backing musicians could be either male or female: curved lines on their chests hint at breasts, but the breadth of their shoulders suggests that these lines delineate well developed pectoral muscles. No upper garments have been indicated; their torsos are the same colour as their hands, legs and feet. Large grey blobs with crudely drawn features, all wearing similar expressions, provide heads that sit directly on the figure’s shoulders without necks, evoking masks. The band members play (from left to right): a freestanding drum, what looks like a large guitar hanging from the musician’s neck in a horizontal position, and a small brown guitar. Outlined in black ink and coloured with watercolour paint, the figures float on 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.

T12581 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 (, 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.

As in T12581, 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 work, both in the form of actual costumes (reproduced in Tree with Roots, pp.81–2) and, worn by humans, as enigmatic characters in his drawings, as here. 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.) Two tree-men wearing green outfits interact with enigmatic female characters in T12583. Other variants on these tree-men include a row of figures wearing more extended tree-costumes which cover their bodies from the knee up in T12589; and a wide-eyed tree being sexually penetrated by a naked boy while the corpse of a clothed child hangs from one of its branches in T12586. The artist has cited native Canadian art as a significant early influence, its mythology of hybridised human and animal creatures common to children’s fairy tales, cartoons and comic, all of which have contributed to his imagery.

Masks are a central component in Dzama’s imaginary world, often occupying an ambiguous space between theatrical costumes worn by humans and more integrated cartoon characters. The blob-like heads on the backing musicians in T12581 may be derived from the lumps of plasticine the artist used to alter the action figure models he had as a child. A mass of joined grey cloud-like heads with similar characteristics, that evoke ghosts, is held aloft by a group of naked ladies in an untitled drawing made the following year (T12584). 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 – an almost uniform palette of browns and olive greens, with occasional splashes of red – and stylised characters have an old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of the 1930s. Their disturbed psychological dimension – often a direct response to current affairs being discussed on the radio – recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s iconography with twentieth century popular culture. Music is an important element of this: in 2003 he collaborated with the American rock band They Might Be Giants on a collection of children’s stories and songs entitled Bed, Bed, Bed. More recently he designed the set and costumes for the music video of Department of Eagle’s song ‘No One Does it Like You’ (released March 2009).

Further reading:
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.

Elizabeth Manchester
November 2009

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