September 9 − October 25, 2014
It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to write that Winnipeg-born, Brooklyn-based Marcel Dzama’s latest show at this gallery felt epic. Filling both of Zwirner’s large Chelsea spaces on West 19th Street with mirror-image displays of drawings, sculptures, dioramas, collages and videos, Dzama treated visitors to perhaps the most fulsome presentation of his gleefully dystopian vision to date.
By now, Dzama’s references to Duchamp, Dada and the game of chess are as well-known as the armies of dark-haired women, simulacra of Louise Brooks and Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse), and other hybrid creatures who populate his drawings. Two large series of watercolour, gouache, ink and graphite paper-based works, one red-themed and the other blue (like two opposing factions) form the basis of the exhibition. Choosing highlights from among them is almost impossible given the sheer amount of visual information to take in, but the presence of a figure that looks just like Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960s Batman TV series in I cannot justify my recordings (all works 2014) jumped out, as did the teeming array of characters in the two-part drawing My mother, my father, my sister, my killer, my lover, my savior, and other faces I once knew. The large The mistakes are all there waiting to be made or The Cheshire defense is also notable among the drawings for its visual referencing of Duchamp’s print work, such as his Monte Carlo Bond #1 (1924).
Many of the figures in the drawings enter the three-dimensional world in the sculptures and the dioramas, as well in two boxes (again, one red and one blue) filled with objects in homage to Duchamp’s Box in a Valise editions (1935-41). But, the highlight of the exhibition was the U.S. debut of Dzama’s film Un Danse du Bouffons (or A Jester’s Dance), which also gave the exhibition its title. Two versions of the film were screened in two different theatres within the galleries, one tinted red and the other blue. (A rough cut of the film debuted in a David Cronenberg-themed exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto in 2013.) In it, Dzama’s drawn world springs to life and tells a cryptic (no surprise there) yet compelling tale involving the rescue of a prisoner who seems to be playing a game of chess under extreme duress. His rescuer comes in the form of one of Dzama’s femme fatales; in the red film, she is played by Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth. (In an interview with this writer for an ARTnews article about the Cronenberg show, Dzama expressed that women are always stronger than the men in his world, and Gordon embodies this.) Gordon brings a gravitas to her performance, while the actress in the blue film is livelier and more responsive to what is going on around her. This lends the version of the film featuring Gordon an air of solemnity, while the blue version feels, somehow, more hopeful.
Despite the strangeness of Dzama’s world, it is one that you feel compelled to inhabit for a long time, parsing his imagery and myriad references to art history. This exhibition opened up new possibilities for Dzama’s art, breathing new life into his distinctive style.
Bill Clarke was the Executive Editor of Magenta Magazine Online from its inception in September 2009 until May 2017. His writing has been published in Modern Painters, Art Review, Canadian Art, Artnews and several other publications. In January 2017, he assumed the position of associate director at Angell Gallery in Toronto.