Marcel Dzama - Selected Press | David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama

- Selected Press

Beneath a pair of sienna-hued palm trees, four hooded women in polka-dotted capes stand by the edge of a pool in which a lone child sits, fully clothed. With upturned hands, he creates a swirl of gentle ripples across the water’s surface. This watercolor drawing by Marcel Dzama, titled "The pool near the ocean", 2020, is among several serene bayside dramas produced for an online presentation at David Zwirner. Each whimsical scene—inspired by the artist’s recent sojourns with his young son to Morocco and Mexico—is peopled with a host of carnivalesque characters, whose choreographed antics often fail to disrupt the tranquility of the boy’s isolated play.

Given the troubling times we find ourselves in, a “viewing room” that invokes the wonder of travel could potentially miss the mark. Yet scrolling through these imaginative scenarios—albeit backlit on my laptop screen—proves a delightful respite. The exhibition includes stunning photographs of Dzama’s studio and a video introduction performed by his son (in a suit and an N95 respirator), interspersed with footage of the two aforementioned locales, shot by the artist. The vibrant drawings remind us of what’s “out there” and lure us through the realms of dreams, imagination, and memory—no passport or mask needed. Dzama’s world is marked by surreal shifts in scale, visual rhymes, and communion with animals—like the brown cat who sits beside an elderly oud player, or the oversize butterflies who hover above a leisurely game of chess.

“Pink Moon” is titled for a recent, shared experience that belies the strangeness of real life at present: April’s rose-hued supermoon, a celestial harbinger of new beginnings, viewed simultaneously from rooftops and balconies across the world. In the show’s titular drawing, the heavenly object dons a sinister grin and emerges through a cosmic haze, flanked by attendants with white cloths draped across their faces.

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As David Zwirner launches an online exhibition of Dzama’s drawings, he’s at home in Brooklyn with his family, developing coloring books for his son.

In 2018, Marcel Dzama spent just over a month in Morocco with his family, traveling through Tangier, Essaouira, the Rif and High Atlas Mountains, Fez, Beni Mellal, Marrakech, and the Agafay Desert. In the two years since, the Canadian artist known for his ink and watercolor drawings has built on sketches and ideas from that journey, producing a group of works with surrealist and folk influences that form part of an online exhibition at David Zwirner that launches today. Titled "Pink Moon", a nod to the renewal symbolized by the first full moon of spring and the romance of travel, the hopeful, colorful show also includes drawings from Dzama’s recent trip to Mexico. He is currently at home in Brooklyn with his wife and son and their cat, where he’s shifted his focus to smaller works and developed a coloring book, "Coloring the Moon Pink", which is available for download on Zwirner’s site. Here, he shares his thoughts on creating during a pandemic and the particulars of his family’s quarantine rituals.

Do you feel that this has been an especially creative time for you?

Yes, I’ve been working more on small drawings because my workspace at home is a small desk. It has been a lot of fun and much more immediate and intimate. I haven’t been to my studio since the lockdown started, so it has been difficult to work on larger pieces. I had a deadline on a large drawing and I had to have most of it rolled up while I worked on it because it was too big for my home studio space. Also, my cat walked through it a few times and added some ink prints. He likes to collaborate.

What does a typical day look like for you right now?

It’s been pretty organized, for the most part we wake up early, I’ll make breakfast for the family, my wife helps my son with online school for most of the day and I work on small drawings. I’ll do a lunch for everyone, and we’ll go back to online school and drawing. Once he’s finished online school, I’ll help him get his homework done and then we’ll draw together, or color RxART coloring books—which he filled up, so I started making drawings for him to color. We’ll play music and make short time-lapse or stop-motion videos with cutouts or Legos together. Then my wife or I will make dinner. After that, we will watch a film or read. I’ll draw again, I’ll read to my son before his bed time. Then I’ll work late into the night on drawings or film ideas. The weekends are much more fun ’cause there is no online school and we can sleep in and work on more ambitious projects with our son—like Papier-Mâché or something like that. We even did a time capsule and buried it.

Any new daily rituals you’ve added to the mix?

At 7 o’clock p.m. each day we go outside and clap, play bongos—my son learned to play his mouth harp really loud to show respect to all the essential workers. Our whole block has really gotten into it and my son usually leaves the cheer a minute earlier and gets everyone to come out, which has been a great connection to the community in this isolated time. I’ve done a few drawings to raise money for charities in need right now and also am trying to collect any PPE equipment for hospitals: protective masks for nurses and doctors, mainly. I actually got a big box of masks from an art collector in Hong Kong and another from an art collector in San Francisco that were given to hospitals in need.

What would be your advice to someone who is getting into drawing for the first time as an adult?

Besides practicing a lot, Just make sure you’re having fun while you’re drawing. People can see that spark when someone is enjoying making art.

What inspired you to make a coloring book?

My son loves to color and we had a whole collection of RxART coloring books and he filled them in quite quickly so I started making drawings for him to finish and to color. He’s a great collaborator, he’ll add an extra head or creature and color it, he’s very creative.

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Marcel Dzama does not like to kiss and tell. The renowned artist who hails from Winnipeg, Canada and lives and works out of New York City, has fans in high places. Brad Pitt, for one, has bought some of his artwork. Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage and film director Gus Van Sant too invested early, right after a solo show at LA’s Richard Heller Gallery put Dzama on the map. While he’s unwilling to let on who his newest high-profile fan is – he apologises – it’s some consolation that he will be here, in person, painting a wall of the David Zwirner booth at India Art Fair, New Delhi next week.

Dzama rose to prominence in the 1990s, marked out by his distinctive visual language and predilection for world-building, mostly in watercolours. Influenced as much by folk vernacular as by surrealism and, of course, Dadaism (he is a lifelong fan of “troublemaker” Marcel Duchamp), Dzama creates intricate figurative drawings in which masked humans, anthropomorphic beings, bats, bears, caped superheroes, cartoon characters all stalk the topography, often recurring through shows and phases. At first glance, these works might look like something out of a book of children’s fairy tales, but look closer: They’re stunning and grotesque, enigmatic and accessible, violent and facetious at once.

Dzama has never been restricted to paper, instead also creating dioramas, sculptures, even movies. He’s also done album covers for the likes of American singer-songwriter Beck. His show at the India Art Fair will include 15 works, some of which were created specifically for India. There will also be a screening of a film he made in 2013, Une Danse des Bouffons (it’s about Duchamp, of course), along with the WIP mural project.

“I want to be spontaneous and try to be influenced by my surroundings and new experiences.” Dzama writes us over email, “but I’m sure a few of my characters that I’ve been drawing over the years may appear, the page cut and haircut women perhaps, or maybe bats or owls, a three-eyed goddess most likely, some polkadot and perhaps a reference to Duchamp or Picabia.”

“I usually work with liquid acrylic paint and it goes on nicely to a wall,” he continues. “I did one with my father last year and I’ve done a couple with [friend and frequent collaborator] Raymond Pettibon. They’re a lot of fun, usually a bit messy. The higher up it goes, the less crowded it gets; because it’s quite hard to reach up high and draw something worthwhile unless you have a good strong ladder.”

A dance can be taken as a Manifesto features a Bollywood dancer. Could you describe your first encounter with our song-and-dance routines?

I saw that drawing as some sort of apocalyptic Bollywood film where a goddess comes from the sky to bring justice to the world and her followers are celebrating. I don’t remember the first Bollywood film I saw, but I remember seeing an old 60s film, Gumnaam. It was later used in some scenes in a film called Ghost World, an American film that stars Scarlett Johansson. That was exciting to see because it was such a great film and had such a brilliant soundtrack. I love dance and choreography, so Bollywood won me over instantly.

Have you been to India before this?

For the jump, I really wish I was able to visit India before I made this work. I’ve always wanted to travel to India. I’m sure it would’ve been very inspiring, but most of the work for the show was influenced by early Indian films that I'd seen while living in Winnipeg. There is a large Indian population there; there were many Indian video stores back in the 90s. I loved the Bollywood films, they had such great choreography and music. The ones I remember most usually had a soundtrack by Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar. I also had a few lobby cards and an old book of movie posters from Bollywood films. That also influenced this new work.

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In the what you could call "aftermath" of the US elections of 2016, we sat down with Brooklyn-based, Calgary-born painter Marcel Dzama in his studio in NY and talked about how much art could be effective in the supermodern world. One of my all-time favorite Juxtapoz covers came after this discussion, February 2017, a collaboration between Dzama and Raymond Pettibon, a scene of superheroes in action. Only in this scene, it was the female superhero saving the day, with the backdrop of flames and an all seeing "eye" hovering over the scene. We didn't want to be explicit about the beginning of the Trump era, but I feel like Marcel Dzama set the tone.

Fast-forward to Marcel Dzama's newest solo exhibition, Crossing the Line, opening at David Zwirner in Hong Kong on Janaury 22, 2019, and the artist is still speaking for the times in poignant and graceful ways. Gone are the days of his minimal works at part of the Royal Art Lodge; today sees dense, complicated, highly detailed works that touch on contemporary issues but almost appear out of a fairy-tale. "I have always enjoyed trickster characters throughout history and mythology, as a way to escape the hold of the logical," Dzama says. "I do from time to time candy-coat what I’m projecting in my work. Like my anger and anxieties around our times. In some of the work, I try to explain it, but in other works I pass over it in silence. I like the viewer to decide what’s happening."

As Zwirner notes, "Spanning the two floors of the gallery, the works on view explore imagery inspired by the artist’s recent trip to Hong Kong, while also reinvigorating a range of fantastical motifs that Dzama has investigated throughout his oeuvre. Here, the artist combines elements from the theater and carnival with those of warfare and conflict to create a singular vision, both playful and dark. He develops a world that mirrors our own where life and death, calm and violence can coexist and where allusions to artistic movements including Dada and Surrealism are depicted alongside commentary on present social and political issues."

Dzama says of his body of work, "Sometimes I will start with just a blank page and do an automatic drawing. Other times I’ll have an image in mind or in front of me, and I’ll use it as a reference in my composition. I think I’m influenced by making films. I subconsciously think about the rule of thirds, the page divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines, with the most important elements at the points where the lines intersect. But I purposely break those rules from time to time. The medium I start with is graphite, and then with the smaller drawings I’ll use watercolor paint, and the larger drawings are acrylic paint. Every now and then, though, I’ll keep them just in graphite."

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Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon are a match made in art heaven. So it seems pretty unbelievable that it took until 2015 for the two friends to pick up pen and pencil and collaborate with one another. The result of their pairing was shown at David Zwirner gallery in New York (under the title Forgetting the Hand) and in the London gallery (this time, entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies) the following year. In the two shows, their inky marks were scrawled across pages and pages of paper, spilling from the confines of these onto the surrounding walls. The collaboration was also featured in Elephant issue 29.

“We’ve been friends for over ten years,” Dzama told Elephant in 2016, “and it was a nice reason to get together. I have loved Raymond’s work since the late 1980s; he was one of the first contemporary artists I knew about. He opened the art world to drawing; it wasn’t really widely accepted before him. It was so exciting to mix our two worlds together and see how they would interact. We have similar backgrounds and our kids are the same age, and many of our early influences are the same as well, so it was very easy for us to communicate without even saying a word.”

As with any work from these two, the fun here lies in exploring the various words and objects that are woven throughout. An enormous turquoise Cheshire Cat face grinned down from the wall in an upstairs room at the London show. At one point, Spike Jonze’s small dog appeared, drawn by the pair after a visit to their studio. A spikey-toothed bat, adorned with blue-wave-covered wings flapped over the stairs. The sprawling work is intense, trippy, funny and loaded in a way that is truly characteristic of these two. One of the most exciting aspects of the collaboration is the blending of the two artists’ distinct styles, as the line between them becomes unclear. In working together they would borrow each other’s characters and quirks (hence the multitude of wave covered bats, bringing together Dzama’s love of the fang-toothed nocturnal creature with Pettibon’s custom lashings of blue pen).

“We didn’t want it to be obvious what Raymond did or what I did,” Dzama told us. “He would draw a bat or I would draw a wave. It was very interesting to learn the techniques and about different mediums. It was also a nice way to release our egos and make the work almost become authorless.” 

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Painter, draughtsman, and filmmaker Marcel Dzama creates ink and watercolor drawings of fantastical characters enacting bizarre, surreal scenarios. Beyond the confines of the art world, his work has appeared on album covers for bands such as Beck and They Might Be Giants; and in 2016 he designed both a set and costumes for the New York City Ballet in collaboration with choreographer Justin Peck and composer Bryce Dessner of the National.

Dzama admits a personal aversion to technology's rapid advance in our lives and embraces tradition, creating intimate works on paper inspired by the work of William Blake and Francisco de Goya, among others. Inside his whimsical Brooklyn studio, he describes the tension that can arise between artists who embrace or reject new technologies in their work, the continued relevance of traditional media, and a desire for humanity to slow down in an age when information comes at us with ever-quickening pace.

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"Be what you want to be," Marcel Dzama says of the theme of The Mask Makers, the booth he's curating for David Zwirner at Independent Brussels. "The mask is freedom, anonymity, a new identity or gender, and bridging us to the afterlife." The exhibition is rooted in Dzama's own fascination with masks, which have appeared in his work since the mid-1990s. Even as a child, Dzama was drawn to them, particularly the wooden Inuit masks at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and a Greek theater mask that his grandmother gave him when he was eight. "Since then," he says, "I've always taken note and enjoyed it when I saw other artists doing masks."

One such work that Dzama paid particular attention to was Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, a complex oil painting by James Ensor of clownish clergymen and carnival goers that hangs at the Getty. The Mask Makers is a nod to the Belgian painter, and the booth will include some of his prints. There will also be contributions from Zwirner artists Mamma Andersson, R. Crumb, Sherrie Levine, Jockum Nordström, Raymond Pettibon, Jordan Wolfson, and Lisa Yuskavage, as well as works by David Altmejd, Peter Doig, James Ensor, Marilyn Minter and Cindy Sherman, among others. Dzama will also share several of his own works, including "The cast and crew of the revolutions"–a graphite drawing of costumes he designed for the New York City Ballet–which will be employed as wallpaper to create a contextual environment in the booth. Here, Dzama discusses some of the pieces in The Mask Makers, and opens up about his ongoing fascination with the disguises.

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Five-masked woman, armed with longbows and submachine guns are posing en garde above the words: The Revolution Will Be Female. I am visiting 42-year-old artist Marcel Dzama at his Brooklyn studio which—though brimming with eye-catching curios—is organized enough for this poster-sized drawing to lay flat in the center of the room. "It's something I was working on for International Women's Day," he says, adding that he had made another version as a sign for the Women's March on Washington. I later discover on his Instagram a handful of such posters he'd drawn up for protest marches.

Dzama, pacific in character and gentle in speech, has seen the playful macabray of his illustrated characters and creatures—including goat-head dictators, dancing tree people, and sinister-looking masquerades—emerge from the art world and into pop culture in music videos, cinematic films, large staged-productions, and magazine covers. With his fame, Dzama has leveraged support toward various initiatives such as the children's non-profit 826NYC and the American Civil Liberties Union. At a time when the arts and education have come under unprecedented threat, sloganeering seems a natural output for the artist’s creativity. 

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One might think, after viewing the new Raymond Pettibon / Marcel Dzama show at David Zwirner, that the two men have known each other forever. Forgetting the Hand (open through February 20) features a series of drawings on which the men collaborated. In accordance with the title, the viewer easily forgets that two different hands made these marks. Despite the unique aesthetics of both men, they've mirrored each other's styles and worked together so seamlessly that it would be easy to think that just one artist created the entire group.

At one time, though, Dzama was just a young Pettibon fan, admiring the artist from afar and waiting for his own big break.

"He was the first contemporary artist that I probably knew of because of the bands I liked as a teenager, like Sonic Youth," says Dzama. "The first CD I ever bought was Goo [for which Pettibon designed the cover]." 

Dzama also tells a story about how he may partially owe his own Zwirner representation to Pettibon. "I don't know if this is true or not," he says, "but when I had my first show in LA at Richard Heller Gallery, David Zwirner was buying Raymond Pettibon drawings from him and saw my work. He wouldn't have been there otherwise. Raymond really opened the door for drawing in contemporary art. I don't know if there would have been room for me before that."

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When i-D first interviewed Marcel Dzama—the Canadian-born, Brooklyn based artist who counts Arcade Fire as collaborators—he was boogieing around David Zwirner's New York gallery in preparation for his Dadaist disco show, Une Danse des Bouffons. About a year later, Dzama again laced up his dancing shoes at the NY Art Book Fair, where he hosted a mini marathon of choreography from his video Death Disco Dance. Now, we're happy to announce Dzama's most ambitious dance related-project yet: a commission for the New York City Ballet's fourth annual Art Series.

Since 2013, the NYCB Art Series has brought original collaborations with contemporary art's brightest stars to the public during NYCB performances at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center (you might remember Dustin Yellin's 3,000 pound glass sculptures from last year). Dzama's multidisciplinary installation will continue themes explored in Une Danse des Bouffons: a different Marcel (Duchamp)'s chess obsession. Just like Dzama's Jester's Dance, the NYCB installation will feature video, drawings, and sculpture.

But Dzama's commission also marks the first time in NCYB's history that an artist has simultaneously created work for both the Art Series and a production. In addition to creating the Promenade installation, Dzama designed the sets and costumes for NYCB Resident Choreographer Justin Peck's winter season world premiere ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, which is based on a Hans Christian Anderson story.

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Among the artist-made books (as opposed to the books about artists) at the New York Art Book Fair, which opened last night at MoMA PS1 to a hustling, bustling VIP crowd, is a zinelike collaboration between Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon. Both are artists with David Zwirner, whose new publishing house put the two artists together on the project. "They like each other but had never worked together," says Lucas Zwirner, who works with his family's bookmaking operation. First Pettibon gave Dzama some of his unfinished drawings, which Dzama collaged, and then, a week later, Dzama brought some of his to Pettibon, which Pettibon added some of his gnomic text to. "They swapped and then reswapped," says Lucas. "They wanted to augment each other's work." It comes in an edition of 300, none of which are signed, which is why they're only $30. The tone is a bit anxious and perverse. As for what it means, well, some of Dzama's drawings—and he's always drawing — are on Chateau Marmont letterhead. But only since he was in L.A. during part of the collaboration, so the only meaning there is that some artists sometimes get to live like they're in the movie business. But the zine's repeated phrase is: "The appeal to the reader is that of a folk or fairy tale well told." To which, in one corner, Pettibon's wan all-caps scrawl is added: "This story, if it is one, deserves the closure of a suicide."

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The Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama is known for his Dadaist multidisciplinary work—drawings, puppets, dioramas—and his collaborations on standout music videos. He was an art director on "The Suburbs," the inventive Arcade Fire short film, and co-directed the spooky "No One Does It Like You" for Department of Eagles.

His latest art piece, "Une danse des bouffons" ("a jester's dance"), is a 35-minute black-and-white silent film inspired by an ill-fated love affair between Marcel Duchamp and the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. (She stayed with her husband, and he responded with the tableau "Étant donnés," his last major artwork.) A surreal, creepy, funny allegory, the film is stuffed with cultural references, including Nigerian mythology, Francis Picabia's painting "Adoration of the Calf" and Busby Berkeley musicals. It stars Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame (and an artist in her own right) as Martins, sporting a terrific black bob wig and costumes by Christian Joy, the designer for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O. (The Belgian model Hannelore Knuts plays another version of Martins.) The otherworldly soundtrack, composed by members of Arcade Fire, will be available on 7-inch vinyl.

Shot over three days in a Brooklyn studio, the work was commissioned for the Toronto Film Festival in 2013, where it was intended as an homage to the filmmaker David Cronenberg. "I thought if I was paying homage to Cronenberg, I would pay homage to Duchamp and Picabia and Joseph Beuys, as many people as I could have—all my heroes," said Dzama, who is now based in Brooklyn and whose work is sought after by institutions like MoMA and the Tate Gallery and collectors such as Brad Pitt and François Pinault.

The film will have its U.S. premiere on Tuesday at David Zwirner in Chelsea. In a joint phone conversation last week, the collaborators Dzama, Gordon and Tim Kingsbury of Arcade Fire discussed the project.

Q. Marcel, how did you land on Kim for the cast? And Kim, how did you prepare?

A. Dzama: I was really nervous to ask Kim. I was telling Spike Jonze, and he was like, "Why don't you just ask her?" I just assumed it would be too much to ask.

Gordon: I was very flattered to be asked. I pretty much just showed up, jetlagged from being on tour in Europe. It's always nice to have something else to go right into after being on tour, because there's always a big letdown after all this activity. The hardest part was actually after I said yes and then Marcel said, "Oh, also a model is doing a part as well, who's young and beautiful." That was slightly intimidating.

Dzama: Don't tell Hannelore this, but I didn't think I would be able to get you for a long enough time. I thought I could have Hannelore as backup.

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Marcel Dzama's work to date has been heavily defined by a prolific series of figural drawings produced in graphite, pen and ink, watercolor, and root beer wash. Equal parts macabre and mischievous, these illustrations have created a host of oneiric characters. In this world, guerilla ballerinas can be found both shooting and suckling orgiastic mystery cults, on the same page as anthropomorphic animals and Bauhaus puppets arranged in ceremonial chaos. Bradley Bailey describes one of Dzama's drawings in the monograph Marcel Dzama: Sower of Dischord as "a grandiose scene of majesty and spectacle, as if the Revelation of John were directed by Busby Berkeley." While the artist has been working in film for years, it has only been in the past decade that these personalities have jumped from paper to video performance.

In Une Danse des Bouffons (A Jester's Dance), Dzama conceives of a "Dadaist love story" between artists Marcel Duchamp and Maria Martins. Awakened by a trickster from sculptural stasis as Duchamp's Étant donnés, Maria (played by both Kim Gordon and Hannelore Knuts) finds Marcel trapped and tortured by chess. She confronts overgrown puppets and quadruple-eyed judges to rescue her lover with the trickster's assistance (or hindrance). Commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, Une Danse des Bouffons makes its U.S. premiere alongside related two- and three-dimensional work by the artist at David Zwirner Gallery.

Dzama led Interview on a tour of the in-progress installation for his solo exhibition in Chelsea.

RACHEL EGAN: I was first consciously exposed to your work in the form of the exhibition catalog for The Last Winter. I remember it quite vividly—my uncle had given the book to me for Christmas.

DZAMA: Oh—awesome!

EGAN: I'm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and while the winters are nowhere nearly as harsh as the ones in Canada, it was snowing profusely while I read it. This was around the same time that I saw Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World. On top of that I was a teenage girl, so the net effect gave me a very romanticized view of Winnipeg and its artists. Back then I thought of you as a draftsman, drawing as a really intimate, insular act, but now there is an outpouring of multimedia—ceramics, dioramas, and film.

DZAMA: I was always doing films, but the ceramics didn't come until later. I did take ceramics in university, which gave me an appetite for the medium, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with it yet.

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