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IMP OF THE PERVERSE: THE DRAWINGS OF MARCEL DZAMA * RICHARD HELLER GALLERY LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

imp of the perverse
Marcel Dzama, R127032852


Menacing caterpillar men, hostile helmeted pets, predatory pupae performing sex acts with cowboys clothed in rubber bondage suits, alluring nudes with removable faces, minatory birds, cannibalistic squirrels, a chef about to stab a radio, tin men with sexy babes in dishabille; these are but a few facets of the pictorial universe of Marcel Dzama, a young Canadian artist from Winnipeg, whose cumulative suite of 800 uniformly-sized drawings seems to be propelled by the motto mutatis mutandis.

Like a mischievous schoolboy, Dzama has harnessed his Alfred Jarry sensibility and put it in the service of art, adroitly cranking out hundreds of fetishistic doodles interlinked in an ongoing narrative about life science, slave-master paradigms, the physics of smoke, mechanical appliances, and whimsical, trans-species erotica. Working in a standard 8 1/2" x 11" typewriter sheet, format, Dzama has produced walls full of weird watercolors which were displayed unframed, side-by-side, creating an effect of strip cartoons or rows of animated film cells. But unlike animated film cells, there is no prescribed sequence for these sketches, whose story line changes with physical rearrangement.

For the all the ease and glibness of his method, and for all the frivolity of his themes, Dzama stands squarely in the caricaturist tradition--not of Hogarth and Daumier, but in line with the Grandville school of fanciful human-animal hybrids, figures from myth, and dream creatures. Teeming with dark humor, Dzama's world illustrates the "what fools these mortals be" principle; humans and animals alike trap, trick, and trip themselves up in cycles of vanity, sado-masochism, and sheer absurdity, while hallmarks of the grotesque express themselves in various sorts of distortion and incongruity, especially stuntedness or exaggeration of physical features.

Employing a technique of substitution and displacement, Dzama spins out an endless succession of bodily modifications, fanning across a broad panorama of repetitive patterns and obsessive leitmotifs. This recombinant serialism is abetted by the monotonous application of flat and understated coloration--drab browns, washed-out greens, and battleship grays--and by an apparel aesthetic derived from '20s and '30s fashion magazine illustration and from '40s and '50s Buck Rogers-style Saturday matinee space opera.

Dzama's ideological concerns revolve around a sort of primary biology, involving mutation, pupation, hibernation, gestation, and birth. Not only are repeated references to stages of growth and development frequently encountered, but images of grafting, and of what can only be described as demented entomology are commonplace. There can also be seen a reciprocity between anthropomorphism and atavism in which animals personify human traits, yet hold the upper hand over people. Moreover, like cartoon characters, Dzama-beings bounce back from mortal injuries and live on, none the worse for the wear. Existing in states of ejaculation and apostrophe or of silent protest, these beings enter into bizarre interactions, forming strange alliances and hanging out in conspiratorial poses or "fellowships of fear."

An elaboration of Dzama's genres and subgenres would be impossible to complete, but a summary of some of the more significant must include:

Helmets, Masks, and Blindfolds

Into this group fall the anesthesiologists in surgical hoods, women seated before dressing room mirrors wearing nylon stockings over their heads, domino-masked bulldogs, hooded marionettes or ventriloquist's dummies, tin men with funnel caps, leather-masked lemmings, blindfolded bondage dolls, and bandaged-beaked birds.

Insect Life

These are the larvae, the caterpillars, and the pill bugs, as well as human prisoners of bee hives, dangling spiders, and giant ants.

Gunmen

A Rogues' Gallery consisting of gangsters, soldiers, cowboys, and bandits carrying both pistols and rifles, from six-shooters to flintlock muskets, smoke emerging from the barrel of which may metamorphose into a dollar sign or a leering face.

Gadgets and Gizmos

Mechanical appliances connected to human or animal figures; tubing or wiring running umbilically from mysterious remote-control contraptions.

"Nubbies"

Based on Inuit figures; reminiscent of Blue Meanies in The Yellow Submarine; often seen in aggressive pursuit of or engaged in perverse intimacies with humans; sometimes cute, sometimes mocking.

Rockets and Robots

Usually utilized as conveyances to techno-doom.

Subterraneans

Humans, animals, and animal-human hybrids peopling underground dens and burrows; sometimes with connotations of hibernation or interment.

Amputees

Who often seem to be victims of accidents they are intent on repeating.

Nudes

Whose anatomy is used to maximum effect, as when a woman feeds a "nubbie" with squirts of breast milk, or a procession of gerbils invades an inviting vulva.

Superheroes

Identifiable by their costumes, which are generic, and look homemade, and which are comprised of full or partial bodysuits, hoods, masks, arm-bands, and stockings.

Tinmen

Here in Dzamaland is where the Tinman ended up after he left Oz.

*

Borrowing from sources as diverse as science textbooks and television cartoons, Dzama has created an antiworld of modern mythology. As the horizons of his eccentric vision continue to expand, there is no end in sight to the open-ended, alogical narrative he has forged into ever-perpetual Dzamadrama.

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Los Angeles, California

1998


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