Marcel Dzama doesn’t like horror films, but in a Brooklyn studio peppered with animal masks and the odd serpent puppet, he is ever-ready for Halloween. You may have seen his costume—the bullheaded man in a polka-dotted toga dancing alongside other hotshots of the art world in Jay-Z’s performance art film, “Picasso Baby.” Underneath the mask is the man with a neat haircut and boyish grin known for the erotic cavalcades and cool anarchy rendered with childlike stylization in drawings as well as dioramas and films. When I ask him what he does when he faces an artistic block, he looks dumbfounded as if he’s never known such an experience. “You mean like what writers face?” he asks with a confused smile. Dzama has been making art as long as he can recall, lacking time rather than inspiration. The testimony to his voluminous body of art is Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord, a monograph of his work from 1995 to present, which will be out November 5th from Abrams including three stories by Dave Eggers as well as a taxonomy and comparative essay by Bradley Bailey.
Dzama’s project in zingmagazine issue 23 titled “A Coming Insurrection” animates chess pieces into full-blown characters that cavort with men dressed in polka-dotted pajama-like garb and women wearing thigh highs and masks. As with other drawing series, “A Coming Insurrection” portrays an almost-narrative that begins with the penance of medieval femme fatale Jane Shore and moves through army-like processions of ballet dancers, sex parties, the violent execution of a royal, and anarchy in an art gallery before arriving at the grand finale of a Bosch-like apocalypse scene crowned by a fetus-headed woman descending from the clouds. Rich in references ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Federico García Lorca, random bits of personal significance, mythology, and profusions of art history, Dzama’s drawings are chic, lurid visual networks of history, culture, and imagination.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
What are you going to be for Halloween?
A Picabia bull with the bullhead and I have this polka-dot cape that goes with it. There’s this painting that Picabia did of this dictator cow, but I added the weird cape, he just had a toga. I admire his work so I was trying to think of ideas for a new film and I invented this whole character that is based on that painting and now it’s a Halloween costume because I have the leftovers as a prop. It had an appearance in the Jay-Z video, Picasso Baby.
I’m interested in Marcel Duchamp’s influence on your work. How is your artistic practice related to his ideas on process?
He was just an obsession. I remember seeing his work at a really early age because of our first names being the same so it was a bit of an ego thing I guess. I remember picking up this art book and being too young to understand anything in it so I was blown away. It was a TIME magazine thing when they put out these art books. I think I had it as a library book. I remember the “Étant donnés.” Someone seeing that in elementary school for the first time, it was definitely a little bit of a naughty thing to see. It stayed with me and I didn’t understand what it was either because it wasn’t a painting. It’s a sculpture, but it looked so realistic. But I think I just thought everything was a painting back then too so I was like, what is this strange thing? Later on I got into Surrealism in high school and went back to Duchamp.
Regarding your own process, where do you get ideas?
Sometimes I’ll have an idea to do a film or something like that and then I’ll get focused on doing the film, do storyboards, drawings of costumes, and then after that usually there will be a show coming up and then I’ll start doing drawings loosely based on the film, and then sometimes vice versa, drawings that influence the film.
I just jot down weird sketchbook ideas. I read a lot of art books and get influenced by other artists and get inspired by films. Newspaper articles also influence a lot of things. It’s kind of everything. I almost feel like it’s some sort of therapy and getting out everything I’ve read from inside of me.
Earlier this year, The Afternoon Interviews featuring conversations with Marcel Duchamp and New Yorker journalist Calvin Tomkins were published. In The Afternoon Interviews, Duchamp discusses his fatigue with the role of the artist in the world and his concern about what the role of the artist would become. What do you think the role of artist is becoming?
There’s just so much information and it’s so easy to access now, I don’t think any one artist really can do what they used to. I don’t think any one artist can have that much influence on culture anymore. I find some artists give these little boosts to culture, but in a minor sort of way. There’s so many voices that everything is drowned out and you have to search for the ones you like.
What would you be doing if the art career hadn’t happened?
I have no idea what I would be doing. My back-up plan was that my grandfather has a farm in Saskatchewan and I was going to be a farmhand and I could just do art. It costs nothing to live there. I used to help my grandfather farm there and my uncle too. It’s super isolated. There are maybe 30 people in their town. I can deal with that though. They have good radio stations.
On several occasions you’ve described drawing as intimate.
I like the intimacy of it. I always find that painting is a grand statement whereas drawing is very personal and of that moment. There’s an immediacy of drawing also. If you’re working on something for a long time, it loses that moment of inspiration. A lot of times I’ll start with an automatic drawing and then by the end of it I’m organizing it to make a little bit of sense in my mind. There’s a creative spark to creating something brand new and if you don’t get it out within a few days, it disappears or you forget what it was.
In your work there’s an implication of narrative and you’ve worked with writers like Dave Eggers and just recently illustrated an English-language translation of the German novel Momo. Do you have an interest in narrative?
I would like to give a more clear narrative sometimes, but for some reason I do like having a mystery in the drawings. I like letting the viewer decide what happened before and what happens after. Sometimes if there’s too much narrative I feel like I’m just telling the viewer the entire story and then that’s it.
And that seems to relate to your interest in history. When I look at a large body of your work, it looks a bit like a history book. Where does that come from?
When I was growing up, my dad was obsessed with World War II documentaries and books on Vikings, any war-related history he found interesting so I was introduced to it at a really early age. I probably inherited whatever gene he has that is interested in history. At probably too young of an age I watched some of those documentaries with him, especially that World War II stuff with concentration camps and just not understanding it all and being really horrified and disturbed by it.
Besides the art books, do you read often?
Oh yeah. Hardly any fiction, but usually biographies or history and I read a lot of poetry, especially Lorca. I almost relate the drawings to poems in some ways because they’re kind of loose-ended usually.
There are also a lot of apocalyptic events in your drawings. Does that relate to what you were saying about reading history and the newspaper?
Yeah, probably. It seems like in the last few years the whole entertainment industry and maybe newspapers especially have become obsessed with the apocalypse happening and it’s a good subject matter for drawing. It’s kind of grandiose. Also, my drawings have been cluttered with characters and an apocalypse is a good reason to have clutter and chaos everywhere and to give it some form of a story.
There are a lot of apocalypse narratives in the news right now with war and the environment. There’s a lot of chatter right now about what’s going to happen to the world. Do you think humans are going to do themselves in?
Oh yeah, for sure. The technology keeps getting more and more advanced and all it would take is maybe another hundred years and some teenager will be able to blow up the entire world.
You think we have one hundred years left?
Maybe a little more than that.
Maybe something weird will happen and we’ll have a normal brain function fixer. It just takes one real disturbed person or a way of viewing the world. I’m not sure. I think we’re kind of doomed. Hopefully we have more than one hundred years.
Earlier in your practice, you worked collaboratively with other artists. Can you tell me about that transition from collaboration to working alone?
I always worked alone, but I would get together on Wednesdays or Sundays and collaborate with The Royal Art Lodge. I did that for five years maybe. We were all socially awkward artists so it was kind of our way of going out for drinks. I find that I still kind of collaborate with other people, but I usually don’t put that work out there. I just go over to a friend’s place and we’ll draw together. I did a lot of drawings with Maurice Sendak and Spike Jonze, but we were just trying to shock each other. I think that inspired a lot of more perverse drawings in my own work because it was a lot of fun trying to shock each other. I used to draw with my wife as well. Actually our first date was going to a Spike Jonze film, Being John Malkovich.
An L.A. Times critic once described the figures in your work as “humanoids run amok.” There is a homogeny in your work in which humans are a bit animal-like and animals are a bit human-like.
In the earlier work there were these hybrids and later on I defined them more as costumes. I like the whole idea of the mask and the mask represents what the creature’s purpose in the drawing is.
What in your mind is underneath the costume?
Usually a female character. Except for the polka-dotted men – I just see them as background choreography that’s going on for the main subject matter in the drawing, almost like back-up dancers.
Now that I think about it, there are a lot of female protagonists in your work.
I usually prefer the field of female to be in the power position. I always disliked any kind of sexist artwork or anything like that. It’s been around forever so it’s good not to have it. People that I look up to are usually strong women like my wife and a lot of my friends are strong women.
You’ve said that you’re not interested in making art with new technology or with computers. We’re living in a technological revolution in which human lifespan will greatly increase possibly to immortality and space travel will become commercial, for example. How do you think this technological leap will change how humans interact with and process art?
I imagine that there will probably always be a certain amount of people that will be fed-up with an overflow of technology and will always come back to the intimacy – I keep saying intimacy – of paper or of holding a book or a magazine like zing. There will always be that, I imagine. Like the way that vinyl has had a comeback, for example.
Well if we’re only here for another hundred years . . .
Yeah, it won’t matter that much!
I agree that culturally, there will always be those groups of people that come back to the tangible world and to objects.
Maybe they’ll be the ones that survive. They’ll be in caves and they’ll have gas lamps. They’ll survive because they won’t rely on the technology so much. And they won’t have some chip in their heads that when the power goes out their brains shut down.
There’s hope then, right?
In your zing 23 project “A Coming Insurrection,” you address a lot of the ideas we’ve talked about, the apocalypse and this naughty S&M stuff and this sense of anarchy. How does art relate to this idea of insurrection?
I was obsessed with the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show having such an impact and during this series of work I was wishing art could do that again. It’s kind of the nostalgia of it in these drawings.
In “The Grand presentiments of what must come” I was celebrating the birth of my child, so in the center at the top there’s the fetus-headed character coming out of some sort of mythological god. It’s kind of apocalyptic, but it’s also a new beginning.
“The penance of Jane Shore” is sort of the catalyst for the whole series starting. I was working on the film A Game of Chess at the time and was designing the costumes and was working those into the drawings. I also wrote down all the moves from a famous chess game Marcel Duchamp played with someone. Oskar Schlemmer and the costumes that he designed for his ballet were also a big influence.
A monograph of your work from 1995-present is coming out this month from Abrams. How did it feel to look back through almost twenty years of work?
It’s strange to go through it all especially when I was being interviewed by Bradley Bailey because my memory is disappearing so it’s good to get it down now. There’s some really early work from the middle of art school. It was hard to find those. I was also at my parents’ place going through old boxes and trying to find anything that was in there so there’s a few drawings from then too. I like some of it, some of it I don’t. That’s alright. It would be sad if I peaked back then.