Marcel Dzama: Even The Ghost of the Past
David Zwirner Gallery
519 West 19th Street
New York City
212 727 2070
March 6 to April 19, 2008
Marcel Dzama’s drawings evoke the ethos of an adult dreamscape while recalling a style of children’s picture book. What is at first impression a benign arrangement of recurring characters on the vacancy of a blank Manila paper, upon closer investigation reveals the thirty-four year-old artist’s inner world as a theatre of acute anxiety, perversion, violence and irrationality. “Even the Ghosts of the Past,” Dzama’s current exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, indicates new explorations of media and references. While his choice of characters increasingly engages our country’s current political climate, constructing sculptural dioramas has given a palpable form and malaise to his work.
Dividing the exhibition into two distinct spaces, Dzama has displayed his drawings and sketchbooks in the front gallery under conventional lighting and white walls, while he has darkened the rear, revealing six dioramas and the filmLotus Eaters (2005). Recalling the recessed displays in natural history museums, these dioramas in their dark environment also suggest a frightening uneasiness reminiscent of the haunted house experience of childhood. The film, a composite of 8mm, 16mm and Fisher Price sources, expands the vocabulary of Dzama’s drawings through motion picture and, on selected days, is accompanied by a live piano player who performs a soundtrack specific to the film but by physical proximity provides an additional dimension to the dioramas.
In the front gallery, Inflated Threat (2007), a 16-panel drawing (each panel is slightly larger than a sheet of legal paper), Dzama embattles an army of cowboys and femmes fatales against a confused mass of masked terrorists. Rendered in a deadpan and rudimentary manner, Dzama infantilizes these terrorist figures, suggesting the physical inanimateness and inflexibility of an action figure (a childhood toy Dzama has often cited as an inspiration). This impotency is echoed in the lack of grip these terrorists have on their weapons. Floating, weightless and out of grasp, the machine guns dangle within reach, but remain futile and without use. Depicting cowboys shooting at the terrorist above, Dzama makes conspicuous parody of George W. Bush’s idealistic postures against global terror. This drawing also demonstrates the evolving strengths in Dzama’s formal inventions. The complex arrangements, spatial patterning and overlapping are evident in the terrorist’s pin wheel-like designs and the subtle foreshortenings in which their bodies bob forwards and backwards on the blank background of the paper.
Just as Dzama’s drawings infantilize violence, his dioramas are at once latently violent and manifestly impotent. In La Verdad está Muerta/ Room Full of Liars(2007) Dzama uses six identical puppets of Pinocchio. This iconic Disney character is depicted with a visage and hairline resembling President Bush, creating a cabinet of cloned liars as the piece’s title directs. Deploying this fairytale figure also associated with Richard Nixon, Dzama suggests historical connections of the Nixon administration’s prolonged involvement in Vietnam to the present Bush administration’s protracted war on Iraq. These Pinocchios appear sinister in their overstated innocence– in this exaggeration there is also perhaps a similar truth imparted about Bush’s seeming naiveté.
The Underground (2008) is the most overtly political diorama. Three masked figures gripping machine guns surround a squatting female nude. She is inexplicably urinating into a tube that extends below through a tunnel and into the mouth of a suited man sprawled in a burrow. A pipe-smoking dog looks on from an adjacent hole. While the subterranean layer may recall such literary references as Kafka’s “The Burrow,” in the context of the terrorist figures, one may recollect the spider hole in which Saddam Hussein hid before his capture in 2003.
Dzama’s work elicits a myriad of inspirations and connections, but these are not works whose understanding can be achieved by a definitive decoding or deciphering. Like their incongruent sources and inspirations that range from theWhere the Wild Things Are children’s book to Innuit mythologies, the drawings command similar multifaceted and limitless associations. The degree of conceptual sophistication, formal development and self-conscious reference his brand of primitivism has achieved also continues to set his work apart from its inspired imitators as well as the genuinely naïve work of Henry Darger. While Dzama’s work continually references literary and art historical sources, the current political allusions to terrorism are most timely. In these contemporary issues Dzama engages his psychologically complex realm of fantasy with America’s current political landscape, cloaking adult notions of both latent and manifest violence in the beguiling innocence of childhood imagery.