Saturday, March 19th, 2011

The Orchestration of Emotions: Marcel Dzama at David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama: Behind Every Curtain at David Zwirner Gallery

February 17 – March 19, 2011
525 West 19th Street
New York City, 212 727 2070

Installation shot of the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
Installation shot of the exhibition under review. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

In the past decade, Marcel Dzama has largely become known for intricate figurative drawings in which, with an unusual blend of charm, humor and bite, he depicts a vast array of distinct characters and fabled creatures. Walking trees, owls, nurses, bats, bears, cowboys, ghosts and even snowmen are among signature protagonists that inhabit a world rich in exotic adventure. Scenes range from somewhat whimsical to outright dark and it is Dzama’s strength that he is able to stage a complex spectrum of emotions. His figures can find themselves entangled in both moments of tenderness and extreme tension – the latter usually defined by sexual aggression or even lust for murder.

Though “Behind Every Curtain” remains true to Dzama’s vocabulary, the exhibition documents the artist’s continuous search for new twists and ways to channel his vision into different media. To start, his new drawings reveal an increasing affinity for complexity and density. Most are made of adjoined sheets of paper or scrolls. In addition, large clusters of figures fill out almost the entire picture plane and evoke mysterious patterns. The backgrounds, which were formerly left spare, now contain inscriptions, fragments of linear structures and charts. By layering his compositions, Dzama introduces a notion of spatial depth that is further explored in his dioramas.

Marcel Dzama, Rebellion lay in her way, 2011. Diorama: wood, glass, cardboard, paper collage, watercolor, and ink, 21-1/2 x 25-1/4 x 12 inches. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
Marcel Dzama, Rebellion lay in her way, 2011. Diorama: wood, glass, cardboard, paper collage, watercolor, and ink, 21-1/2 x 25-1/4 x 12 inches. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery

Closely related to the drawings, these captivating objects also assemble large groups of figures. Organized on different planes and depicted mainly in shades of red and gray, they form a stark contrast to the architectural structures, which are left white. Much of Dzama’s oeuvre translates as a serious study of play and the dioramas function as miniature theaters, onto whose stages the artist projects his imagination. But Dzama has never been interested in presenting his audience with ordinary narratives. His characters might have personalities, but they hardly serve as storytellers. As is the case in dance, it is primarily the expressiveness of their gestures that conveys meaning. Their actions seem rooted in the abstractions of a dream rather than in reality. This makes for a Surrealist undercurrent, from which Dzama’s increasing interest in Operatic drama emerges.

Over the years, Dzama has repeatedly avoided categorization. Even during his formative years in Winnipeg as a co-founder of The Royal Art Lodge, an artist collective whose members would collaborate weekly on drawings and sculptures, Dzama was devoted to versatility. Be it due to simply embracing unabashed experimentation or the more conscious striving for creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, Dzama’s quest is without doubt always genuine.  That does not mean that all his ventures have been equally successful. His paintings for example always felt a touch awkward, trying to translate the drawings into the new medium but lacking the same technical finesse. In contrast, his dioramas appear as a natural extension of the language he originally set up on paper and his films have also quickly gained in sophistication. The music video he directed with Patrick Daughters for the band Department of Eagles in 2009, being one of the most prominent examples.

This exhibition culminates with “A Game of Chess”, Dzama’s fourteen minutes long homage to Marcel Duchamp’s favorite board game. Incorporating Dada references, Bauhaus aesthetics, and nods to Oscar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet of 1922 and the Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin, Dzama’s dramatic black & white projection depicts performers dressed in geometrically designed costumes. Concealed by elaborate masks, they dance across a checkered board, each delicate ballet step registering like a staccato. The film has its entrancing moments, aided by the fact that the music weaves together seamlessly with the visuals. Again, the narrative gives way to an overall orchestration of emotions. However, the weight that the exhibition puts on this work is distracting. “Behind Every Curtain” leads the audience through rooms filled with drawings, dioramas and rotating sculptures, finding its crescendo in a large screening room in the back. This layout transforms Dzama’s other works into mere props to his latest film. This does not serve Dzama well, as it is his unique trail of thought, not one sole work that is the most impressive.

Ultimately, there is much to discover in “Behind Every Curtain.” While there is a large group of simply stunning works, the most crucial realization one takes from the exhibition is that Dzama remains an artist with a wide-open path ahead. He has set his stakes high by breaking away repeatedly from what he knows. One can expect that this approach to art making will lead him to both repeated success and error. Considering that the former came to him early, while still in his twenties, it is refreshing to know that he allows himself to find the latter as he matures. He occasionally might stumble, but he certainly will get stronger as well.

Marcel Dzama, Turning into Puppets [Volviendose Marionetas], 2011. Steel, wood, aluminum, and motor, 65 x 78 inches. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
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Marcel Dzama, A Game of Chess, 2011. Still. Video projection, 14 min, black & white, sound.  Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery
click to enlarge