Up until recently, Marcel Dzama had a few surprises up his sleeve. When his largest solo museum exhibition to date opened in February at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, viewers were wide-eyed for a couple of reasons: first, because to enter the show meant stepping into a pitch-black first room; second, because what was in that room, and only became clear once eyes adjusted to the darkness, wasn’t drawings. Dzama, known primarily as a thinking-man’s comic artist, a creator of miniature, eerie universes in ink and watercolour on paper, has branched out into the third dimension and a whole new scale.
“Being in New York has been a really big influence,” says the relocated Winnipegger. “At my gallery there, David Zwirner, the spaces have been getting so much larger over the years. Before, when they were in Soho, a few drawings would fill the space—now in Chelsea, they get lost. I knew that I could go bigger with my work and they could accommodate it.”
By “bigger” Dzama means amazing dioramas, set in the dark: horizontal holes in soot-coloured walls where spotlighted tableaux of 3-D characters (bats, floating heads and red-hooded armies) come alive. Each one has its own beguiling narrative. In other regularly lit rooms, there are large sculptural arrangements, kind of like found-object collages (a medium Dzama has adopted on paper, too), which he started getting into on a recent residency in Guadalajara, Mexico. They’re very Duchamp. (“He’s always been important to me, mainly because we have the same name,” Dzama jokes.)
And then, there are the full-sized figural characters. Some are new beings in their own right, but most are large-as-life versions recurring players, like the red-hooded military figures that he’s drawn over and over and made flesh in Department of Eagles’ music video for their song No One Does It Like You. In the exhibition’s third room, one of those figures stands at five feet tall and moves every now and then based on your position in the space. Next to her, though, is my very favourite: a full-sized bear, which those familiar with Dzama’s past work will recognize as a costume that holds a person in it, rather than a through-and-through cub.
“Growing up, I’d stay at my auntie’s farm, and there were bears on her property—I think actually seeing that as a little kid really stuck with me,” Dzama says. “For as long as I can remember, when I see a bear I always imagine it’s a girl underneath, wearing a bear costume as a sort of armour. Like it gives her superpowers.”
Dzama has always been compelled by hybridity—between animal and human, between narrativity and absurdity, and between past and present, as exemplified by his nostalgic Second World War vibe and his way, with this exhibition particularly, of relating to the history of art. His new aesthetic ventures ironically come alive most clearly in a scratched, retro, black-and-white silent film, which shows a mad-scientist/artist in a battle with creativity. Here, the character seems haunted by his miniature creations. One can only posit what will happen to the creator of life-sized beings. I can’t wait to see what becomes of him.