My installation The Disobedient Dollhouse will pay a visit to the Art Gallery of Peterborough, starting this month. This exhibition will also screen my 2-minute stop-motion animation Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery. Exhibition runs from November 9 – January 6, 2013. The opening reception will take place Friday November 16, 7 – 9 pm. Visit the web site of the AGP for details and/or directions.
Tag Archives: Canadian art
One of the activities that keeps me busy these days — other than teaching, of course — is applying to grant programs. This is a long, tedious, and painful process that I submit to only grudgingly. It’s also, unfortunately, a necessary one. As part of the application process, I’ve been forced to cobble together a storyboard for my proposed animation project. This is yet another ‘necessary task’ that I perform grudgingly — being a naturally lazy creature, I’ve never done one before — though the benefits of having a storyboard are immediate and the process certainly worthwhile.
I don’t want to reveal all of my storyboard just yet, but here’s a sneak peak. Below the storyboard sample is my artist’s statement/project proposal, which might prove insightful to those of you who follow the development of my animations.
My current series of stop-motion animations entitled Domestikia developed directly out of a previous sculptural-installation project, in which I constructed a three-dimensional dollhouse from paper and lithographic prints. This project, entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse, employed the setting of a Victorian-themed dollhouse as a means to critique the sentimentality of nostalgia, as well as the tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity that the dollhouse itself proposes. A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine – it is therefore a highly suitable space in which to focus attention on women’s roles within the home. Furthermore, the strange, hybrid creatures and giant insects that populated my Dollhouse hinted at a dark, secret fantasy world churning just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection.
As previously stated, the Domestikia animation series began as an expansion of the narratives that originally appeared in The Disobedient Dollhouse project. For instance, the bird-headed children and Nanny (a self-portrait) featured in Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery first existed as a paper diorama inside The Disobedient Dollhouse. The medium of stop-motion animation enabled me to — quite literally — bring that nursery scene alive. In addition to the scenes and narratives, the look and style of my Dollhouse has also carried over into my animations. Like the hand-drawn lithographs I created for the Dollhouse, the paper cutouts and articulated paper puppets from Domestikia possess the same grainy, textured quality of the lithographic crayon.
Similar to the other Domestikia films, the proposed project Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death will employ the technique known as ‘cutout animation’, one of the earliest forms of stop-motion that uses flat characters and backgrounds cut from paper. The technical limitations of paper puppets, with their characteristically stiff and unnatural movements, make cutout animation particularly well suited to animations whose themes involve fantasy, surrealism, dreams, and that which otherwise lacks realism. Rather than being a technical limitation, the anti-realism of the paper cutout serves to amplify the strangeness of the events that happen throughout Domestikia – which is precisely why I’ve chosen to work with this technique. In Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death, my plan is to further expand the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the paper cutout.
The storyline of Domestikia traces a series of strange, otherworldly events that take place within an imaginary dollhouse. The connecting thread between each narrative is the continual appearance of a butterfly, a creature that acts as a sort of ‘agent of chaos’, disrupting the daily domestic routines of the miniature household. In Domestikia, Chapter 6: An Unfortunate Incident Involving Her Hat, the appearance of the butterfly in the opening scene foreshadows the strangeness of subsequent events, in which the morning routine of dressing goes terribly wrong when a hat decides to grow out of control. The butterfly departs the scene, and in Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery, it appears once more to disrupt the daily proceedings – this time, rousing an infant recently rocked to sleep by the Nanny, creating a cacophony of screams. The butterfly is once again featured in my proposed project, entitled Domestikia, Chapter 3: The Little Death. In this latest installment of the Domestikia series, the ‘little death’ of the title refers simultaneously to the metamorphosis process of the butterfly, as well as to ‘la petite mort’ of orgasm, as the butterfly is shown to have originated from an amorous encounter between Madelaine and her octopod lover. The ‘little death’ also refers to the literal building up, and subsequent dismantling of the Madelaine paper puppet when she is ‘lovingly dismembered’ by the octopus. Ostensibly, Domestikia, Chapter 3 is about shifts in identity that occur as one’s role in life changes: from individual, to couple, to parent. In short, sometimes it is necessary to ‘die’ in order to reinvent oneself.
I have created a site-specific sculpture for the upcoming group exhibition Backyard, curated by Elizabeth Fearon. The concept for the show is simple and clever: site-specific work in the backyard of her own home. There’s an impressive roster of participants, so it promises to be a good show. Here’s all the details:
Backyard: a fearonrevell project
Site-specific installations will be created for our backyard by:
Marie de Sousa
Natalie Majaba Waldburger
The show will run from the 4th of Aug. (Opening reception: 2-6pm) until the 26th of August. The backyard will be open to the public from 1 to 6, Wednesday through Sunday.
Location: 85 Carlaw Ave. Toronto
For more information call 416 654 3232
If you live in the Toronto area, then drop by Open Studio to view some of my recent creative efforts. My latest exhibition “Domestikia: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances” is an exploration into the interdisciplinary possibilities of printmaking. I’ve created articulated paper puppets from lithographic prints, which are then arranged into strange, dream-like shadow box tableaux. These same paper puppets are brought to life in a stop-motion animation, all taking place within an imagined dollhouse.
Opening reception is Friday, February 24th at 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Join me for wine, conversation and general frivolity. Show runs from February 24 – March 31, 2012. Open Studio is located on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, at the corner of Richmond and Spadina in Toronto. For more information on this show, visit the Open Studio web site.
Blog statistics are a fascinating gateway into the collective unconscious. While the identities of those who’ve visited my blog remain anonymous, their mouse clicks remain on record and provide an insight into the topics that interest them most. What occupies people’s thoughts during those moments of procrastination when they are not writing that report for their boss or essay for that class? Cannibals, apparently. More specifically, Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust, a film that’s still considered controversial after 32 years and, likely due to its continued notoriety, received the most “hits” on my blog. If they’re not seeking information on cannibal films, people are looking into the Canadian teenage werewolves of Ginger Snaps which, as far as I’m concerned, is a much better use of their time.
Periodically, I will write about topics other than horror films, though these topics are as equally strange and macabre. Heinrich Hoffmann’s darkly comedic children’s book Der Struwwelpeter (1845) has garnered a great deal of interest on my blog, as well as the eroticized anatomical art of Jacques D’Agoty and anatomists of the 18th-century. The mythological vagina dentata and Japanese ‘tentacle erotica’ draw a fair amount of interest, as one might expect.
Celebrities and famous artists predictably top my statistics tally. People have searched on marquee names from art history including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Odilon Redon, and Hannah Wilke (though the latter is lesser known), as well as contemporary visual artists Loretta Lux, Marcel Dzama and Shary Boyle. And, 45 years after her death, Jayne Mansfield still attracts a large amount of attention. I only wrote about her in a post last week, and she’s #22 on the list of “all-time” top searches. Of course, her story is a ‘perfect storm’ for achieving immortality on the Internet: a beautiful, buxom starlet, who reportedly dabbled in Satanism, died young and in most grisly manner (depending on which account you read, she was either scalped or decapitated in a car accident). We are, as a species, a ghoulish bunch.
Here’s the top 30 searches, according to WordPress:
|jennifer linton alphabet series||94|
|max ernst collage||84|
|drag me to hell||56|
|drag me to hell old lady||37|
|best animated movies of all time…………||33|
Now, get back to work…
p.s. One of the funniest web searches I’ve seen to date would be this one: “horror movie with a women who seducing and kill men with her vagina.” Hey, who am I to judge? Incidentally, there is such a film — not surprisingly, it’s Japanese and called Killer Pussy. You’re welcome.
The last (I promise) of the grad school essays I shall inflict upon you. In this one, my task was to compare my work with that of another contemporary visual artist. I chose Shary Boyle. The astute among you will recognize a passage or two from my Master’s thesis in this essay. Hey, it’s not plagarism when you cannibalize your own writing.
Throughout history, visual artists have fleshed out mythological subjects and generated images based on traditional, time-honoured stories. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which the artist can attach a personal story. Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.
In my own art practice, I frequently make use of myths and archetypes as cultural ready-mades into which I insert my own personal history and meanings. Myths are reinterpreted in my work from a feminist perspective that considers gender representation in these mythological narratives. Another contemporary Canadian artist who employs a similar creative, feminist tactic is Shary Boyle. A commonality in our work is the use of female mythological subjects that evoke the traditional, allegorical link between women and nature. Rather than simply offer a critique of the feminized concept of nature, however, both Boyle and myself use motifs derived from nature in a subversive manner that transform our female subjects in strange, fantastic ways. The transformations and mutations that our mythological heroines experience provide the visible, external evidence of their inner psychological and emotional world.
In her work prior to 2008, Boyle’s use of fairytales and mythological subjects tended to be global rather than specific. Her phantasmagoric imagery suggested the realm of dreams and myths without representing a particular legend or cultural tradition. Her two pencil and gouache drawings that we shall examine, both dating from 2003 and simply called Untitled, are evidence of her generalized incorporation of myth. Both drawings involve remarkable incidents in which a single female figure, isolated on the white void of the paper, quietly experiences a magical transformation. In Untitled (fig. 1) we are confronted with a woman in a bright red dress sitting contentedly in the grass, hands resting peacefully in her lap. The drawing is linear and economical; the grass on which the woman sits is minimally drawn. Two long, yellow plant stalks topped with white blossoms grow outwards from the eye sockets of the woman, a strange phenomenon that has not managed to disturb her serenity. The very fact that the woman appears unconcerned by this fantastic event seems to suggest that this transformation is metaphoric as the flowers are a manifestation of an interior psychological state. Equally, the woman may have simply acquiesced to the inevitability of this strange transformation. The subject of Boyle’s second drawing Untitled (fig. 2), a prepubescent girl whose rigid stance and sideways glance suggests that she’s somewhat more alarmed by the tangled bush growing out from her mouth, nevertheless seems to accept the strangeness of this event as normative.
In her essay entitled “Ornamental Impulse”, art writer Josée Drouin-Brisebois comments on Boyle’s surreal transformations as a manifestation of the emotional and psychological worlds of her subjects. “Boyle’s [figures]”, says Drouin-Brisebois, “express the inner life of the emotions materially.” Drouin-Brisebois cites the review of art critic Robin Laurence for Boyle’s paintings Companions (2004), wherein Laurence states: “Boyle’s portraits suggest that what looks outwardly freakish in others is the metaphorical equivalent of inward aspects of all our characteristics and circumstances.” Thus, the plant life that blooms from the bodily orifices of these female subjects is emblematic of their interior states, though what precisely those states would be remain vague and mysterious.
The mythology to which Boyle attaches her idiosyncratic narratives serves to anchor the work in tradition and provide the viewer with visual clues as to how one might interpret her dream-like imagery. For instance, the otherworldly flora of these drawings reference allegorical and mythological associations of women to nature. Rather than challenge the traditional dichotomy of women and nature, Boyle embraces it in a subversive manner. According to Drouin-Brisebois, Boyle’s women “become…nature in unsettling ways – verdancy out of control or a parasite that takes over the body…” Boyle acknowledges the allegorical tradition while at the same time engaging a sinister playfulness that alters it.
Similar to Boyle, otherworldly flora plays a prominent role in my 2006 intaglio print entitled An Abundant Supply of Milk (fig. 3). Whereas Boyle rarely identifies her female subjects as aspects of herself, my work makes frequent use of self-portraiture and is characterized by an autobiographical content. This particular self-portrait shows myself standing in profile, naked save for a pair of underwear. With my hands I squeeze my breasts and produce an exaggeratedly large spray of breast milk. This cloud-like spray of breast milk, in turn, blossoms into a soggy mass of flowers. Like the drawings of Boyle discussed earlier, this print recognizes the mythic association between women and nature, and in particular the concept of a nurturing “mother nature”, while at the same time subverting it. The nourishing food that is breast milk has transformed into a bizarre floral mass that, rather than natural, appears inexorably alien. Created in the months that followed becoming a first-time mother, this image addressed my response to the strange transformations enacted upon my body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The milk-flowers that spring forth from my breasts represent an externalization of the estrangement I felt from my own body.
A second, earlier self-portrait speaks not to a feeling of estrangement but to the human impulse towards creation, both in art as well as in procreation. The coloured pencil drawing entitled Genesis (fig.4) illustrates the growth of a leafy, magenta and orange plant stalk out of my opened mouth. This fanciful stalk terminates in a perfectly round, ripe pomegranate fruit. Similar to the heroines of Boyle’s drawings, my visage appears untroubled by the unconventional growth of this fruit as if this were the result of a natural, internal process. In contrast to Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, however, the magical vegetation of Genesis recalls a very specific mythological story while at the same time evoking the women-nature dichotomy. The appearance of the pomegranate in this drawing is highly significant as it is a direct quotation from an earlier body of work in which I assumed the role of Persephone, a tragic heroine from Greco-Roman mythology. This role-playing allowed for the insertion of personalized content within the larger context of a universal narrative. Or, as Nietzsche expressed, the myth of Persephone provided “…a translation of a situation into a familiar situation.” We will return to this discussion of Persephone after an introduction to Boyle’s latest works, one of which, coincidentally, deals directly with this same myth.
As previously stated, Boyle’s work is frequently characterized by a global adoption of mythology, her imagery an amalgam of different mythic traditions synthesized with her own idiosyncratic symbolism. The recent unveiling of Boyle’s latest porcelain sculptures at the 2008 grand reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, however, provides an exciting and atypical exception to this aspect of her work. Boyle was commissioned by the AGO to create work that responded to the gallery’s permanent collection. She selected two 18th-century Italian bronze statuettes by Giovanni Battista Foggini with which to engage in a conversation across history. The subjects of Foggini’s sculptures are two commonly depicted Greco-Roman myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and The Rape of Proserpine. Boyle’s porcelains offer feminist reinterpretations of these myths while simultaneously maintaining her characteristic surreal imagery that hints at the internal, psychological world of her subjects.
Boyle’s response to Foggini’s The Rape of Proserpine re-imagines the Greco-Roman myth upon which it is based and addresses the violent and sexually problematic subject matter of the original Baroque bronze. Her delicate porcelain sculpture entitled The Rejection of Pluto (fig. 5) casts the titular deity as a hideously yawning monster and not the sinewy, handsome abductor of Foggini’s statuette. In her 2008 interview with art critic Sarah Milroy featured in The Globe and Mail, Boyle discussed the responsibility she felt as a feminist artist in rendering an alternate version of this classical myth: “I guess I just felt that this subject matter had to be engaged. I had been asked inside the museum, and I felt a kind of responsibility to interrupt some of those narratives, to propose some other kinds of stories.”
Proserpine is the Roman goddess of springtime, wife of Pluto and mythological equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone. Her story is one of great emotional power: an innocent maiden abducted by the lustful god of the Underworld and forced to become his bride. In the Globe and Mail interview, Boyle related the version of this Greco-Roman myth that inspired her reinterpretation:
“…Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of the harvest goddess. Lust incarnate, he emerges from Hades through a pond in the glade of the water nymph Cyane, wreaking havoc on this sacred sylvan spot and seizing Proserpine by force, making her his bride in Hell. Cyane, who protects the natural realms, weeps tears over this loss, so much so that her tears replenish the landscape Pluto has devastated.”
The scene of Boyle’s The Rejection of Pluto is the idyllic glade of the water nymph Cyane, decorated with exotic flowers, seashells and fairytale toadstools. The monstrous head of Pluto emerges from the water, his cavernous mouth yawning open as if to swallow his intended victim. Bright red-orange light, suggestive of the flames of Hell, flickers inside the mouth and eyes of the hollow, chasmal head. The water that immediately surrounds Pluto’s head appears brown and putrid and the vegetation bleached white, all vitality having been drained out by its proximity to the god of the Underworld. The female characters of this story – the girl-child Proserpine, her mother Demeter, and the nymph Cyane – are all gathered in a group at the opposite end of the glade. The amphibious water nymph Cyane glowers fiercely at Pluto, defending Proserpine whom Boyle has cast as a small child wounded by mirrored shards. According to Boyle, these three female figures “represent emotional, mental and physical resistance under siege.”
The crucial role that nature plays in The Rejection of Pluto can be likened to that of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, although the correlation between women and nature in the sculpture have been further strengthened. The landscape of The Rejection of Pluto reflects the violation suffered by Proserpine through its transformation from lush verdancy to polluted wasteland. This transformation of the landscape symbolizes Proserpine’s psychological and emotional turmoil in much the same manner as the mirrored shards that have pierced her flesh represent her physical violation. Boyle’s shrewd interpretation of the Proserpine/Persephone myth emphasizes the allegorical link between women and nature in her analysis of the mistreatment of both women and nature in the world.
The tragic heroine Persephone has also been depicted as a prepubescent girl in my 2000 mixed-media drawing entitled The Bitter Seed. In this drawing, I combine an image of myself as a child with the myth of Persephone as a means to address the difficult territory of childhood sexual abuse. By adopting the role of the mythological heroine, I translate and universalize my personal experience. Through the use of this metaphor, I strive to make an emotional state palatable and thus more easily approachable by the viewer.
The Bitter Seed takes its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:
“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter “…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…”
To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. The metaphoric link between women and nature is quite overt: Persephone personifies the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.
In The Bitter Seed, my childhood self stands thickly outlined in black against a brightly coloured background reminiscent of a stained-glass window. One of my hands holds aloft a pomegranate, above which hangs the phrase “dirty girl.” I stare quizzically at both the fruit and the phrase, my child mind unable to fully grasp their meaning. Like the pomegranate in the Persephone myth, the fruit I hold represents violation and entrapment. Similar to the girl-child Proserpine in Boyle’s sculpture, who displays her wounded arms for the consideration of the viewer, my child-self in The Bitter Seed holds the pomegranate up as a symbolic manifestation of inner “wounds”.
The victimization of the girl-child Persephone in The Bitter Seed is later redressed in my 2002 drawing St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head (fig. 6) in which I assumed the role of the Catholic Saint Ursula, the patron saint of schoolgirls. In a manner similar to The Bitter Seed, this drawing blended autobiographical elements with mythological role-playing in order to universalize personal experience. The heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head assimilates two divergent mythological traditions: the hagiography of the Catholic saint with the Greco-Roman myth of the Gorgon Medusa. More avenging angel than saint, St. Ursula is shown adorned with angel wings and holding aloft a sword and the severed head of Medusa. The mouth of the snake-haired Medusa gapes open in a silent scream while a magical bloom of red flowers bleed from the wound of the severed neck. In the background, graphic and highly stylized red flowers also appear to bleed. Much like the strange, sinister flowers of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, these violent blossoms subvert the traditional woman-nature dichotomy and the association of women with a passive and nurturing feminine principle.
Women are frequently cast as the prize at the end of the hero’s quest but are seldom depicted as the active, adventurous hero themselves in mythology. This gender-biased tradition was best summarized by Joseph Campbell in his 1982 interview with Rozanne Zucchet from his collected writings entitled “The Hero’s Journey”:
“I was teaching these courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?’ I said, ‘The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?’ She said, ‘I want to be the hero!’ So I was glad that I was retiring that year and not going to teach any more [audience laughter].”
While Campbell’s anecdote evidently amused his audience, it also underscores the gender discrimination inherent in mythological models. The sword-wielding heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head constitutes my feminist response to Campbell and this gender-biased tradition. My heroine adopts the stance traditionally occupied by the male hero Perseus who, as the Greek myth tells us, beheaded the female monster Medusa. Additionally, the gender of Medusa in my drawing has been switched from female to male as the image of the severed gorgon’s head my heroine holds is, in fact, a direct visual quotation of a painting by Caravaggio where Medusa is uncharacteristically portrayed as male.
The representation of gender also plays a crucial role in Boyle’s second porcelain sculpture commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Entitled To Colonize the Moon (fig. 7), this sculpture encapsulates her response to Foggini’s bronze statuette Perseus Slaying Medusa as well as to the traditional Greco-Roman myth that she “has interpreted in light of both her environmentalist and feminist ideas.” Boyle’s reinterpretation of the myth views Medusa as a “very misunderstood monster” who suffers a number of indignities and violations resulting from the capricious cruelty of the Olympian gods. The severed head of Medusa lies atop a funeral pyre comprised of dead bats and bees, the expression on her lifeless face one of sad resignation to her tragic fate. In stark contrast to the heroic romanticism of Foggini’s Perseus, Boyle’s version of the Greek hero is a lily-skinned, rosy-cheeked effeminate boy who sits in quiet repose while he wipes the blood from his sword. This traditionally triumphal moment has been undercut by the calmness of the scene and soft, unheroic body of Boyle’s Perseus. The violence of the story is not celebrated, but merely represented in an anticlimactic manner. The death of the monster Medusa and the death of Nature – embodied by the dead bats and bees – are seen as being synonymous. There is a mournful aspect to this sculpture, as Boyle challenges the viewer to consider the violence enacted both upon women as well as upon the natural world.
Contemporary feminist artists such as Shary Boyle and myself are mining the past, revisiting the universal narratives of mythology and, as Boyle succinctly stated, “propos[ing] some other kinds of stories.” Inspired by the second wave feminists, who coined the phrase the personal is political, we disrupt the problematic, gender-biased narratives of traditional myths by inserting our own personal, idiosyncratic content into the larger framework of these universal stories. This personalized content adopts the symbolic vocabulary of myth and, through creative tactics such as role-playing, re-imagines these stories from contemporary feminist perspectives. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with women – namely the allegorical link made between women and nature – is wielded as a deconstructive weapon that knowingly acknowledges this association while at the same time playfully subverting it. The female subjects that populate our work ache, bleed, bloom and otherwise manifest their interior worlds in a number of strange and wondrously magical ways.
Political-phantasmagoria in the art of Marcel Dzama.
The following text is a very short paper I wrote in grad school on the art of Marcel Dzama. Although the ‘voice’ is rather more academic than the writing style of this blog, I thought this paper would be of interest to those amongst you who are not as familiar with this Canadian visual artist. For you researchers out there, I’ve included the citations in a comment at the end of the post.
Marcel Dzama burst upon the international art world in 1997, mere months after his graduation from art studies at the University of Manitoba. The sinister whimsy of his virtuosic drawings, populated by his now familiar characters of bats, tree-creatures, naked women and anthropomorphic bears, immediately caught the attention of curators and collectors alike. Dzama was one of the founding members of the artist collective the Royal Art Lodge in Winnipeg, the city of his birth. Along with fellow members Neil Farber, Drue Langlois and several other Winnipeg-based artists, Dzama engaged in collective drawing and other types of communal art-making practices. The art production at the Royal Art Lodge placed an emphasis on work that was hand-crafted, recycled, low-budget and characterized by a child-like naiveté. The drawings that Dzama created at this time (1996) already possessed his signature palette of sepia-brown, olive and dark, plum-red and depicted elusive narratives involving cowboys, aliens and strange, sexualized animals. His meteoric rise to fame followed an inclusion of his drawings in 1997 at Plug-In Gallery in Winnipeg and at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, California 1. Due to the fact that Dzama and several other members of the Royal Art Lodge have established international careers, the collective has since disbanded. Following a major retrospective of the Royal Art Lodge that toured from 2003-05, he moved to New York in 2004, where he presently lives and works 2.
Dzama’s oeuvre is characterized by frequent references to art history, particularly the work of James Ensor, Francisco Goya and the silent films of the German Expressionists, as well as to imagery based in popular culture like vintage children’s books, fairytales and science fiction. His work blends playful naiveté with violent, psychosexual imagery. The narratives contained in his past work are often resolutely impenetrable to any specific reading by the viewer. However, his 2006 exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, U.K., seemed to hint at an underlying political subtext in his more recent work 3. This new, political aspect to his work became more solidified in his 2008 dioramas exhibited at David Zwirner Gallery, New York 4.
Given the current geopolitical climate, it is tempting to read Dzama’s recent groupings of mysterious, nostalgic yet timeless soldiers as political art. In his epic 2005 drawing World gone wrong we encounter a scene of monumental violence. As with most of Dzama’s work, the story conveyed by the image is rarely, if ever, straightforward. The bodies of dead or dying soldiers hang from trees or lie at the feet of their pitiless vanquishers. These flag-toting vanquishers are shown either firing guns or, in the case of one enigmatic grouping of soldiers, playing musical instruments in a scene reminiscent of WWII Nazi concentration camps where the best musicians amongst the prisoners were forced to play in macabre orchestras 6. Whether these musicians in World gone wrong number amongst the vanquishers or the vanquished remains unclear. Meanwhile, giant disembodied heads lay grimacing on the ground while bats and red birds swoop overhead.
In World gone wrong we find an example of a very specific quotation from Francisco Goya’s series of etchings entitled Disasters of War (Los desastres de la Guerra).
The grouping of naked, bound and dismembered male bodies that hang from the tree in the centre of Dzama’s drawing are directly borrowed from Plate 39 Great deeds! Against the dead! in Goya’s horrific pictorial account of the Napoleonic Wars in his native Spain 7. It is tantalizingly suggestive of a political subtext that Dzama’s drawing should quote from the ardently political, anti-war images of Goya. Furthermore, Dzama’s collection of historically uniformed soldiers depicted in World gone wrong, holding aloft strange red flags emblazoned with bats and manically grinning heads, seem to recall the fervent propaganda and costumed ceremony of the Nuremberg Rally and other such emblems of Europe’s fascistic past. In his 2006 interview with Carter Foster for an exhibition catalogue from Ikon Gallery (Birmingham, U.K.) entitled Tree with Roots, Dzama explains the appearance and evolution of these curious bat flags:
“…I was drawing the bat on a flag as a reference to the false patriotism that everyone was calling on recently. Villain-like characters would be doing something evil in the name of this bat flag…but of course it translated into something else at some point.”8
In the 2005 drawing You gotta make room for the new ones, Dzama offers a surrealistic tableaux of rifled huntsmen and soldiers firing upon a sky raining with bats, flowers, puppets and one octopus10. The dream-like scene seems to defy any attempt at a specific meaning. Dzama provides some clues, however, as to how the viewer might read his narrative. The historic clothing of the huntsmen and soldiers recall the period of time in the 1930’s when the world experienced a surging tide of political fascism and propaganda. Additionally, the red, poppy-like flowers that rain down upon the strange hunting party are reminiscent of the shiny, plastic poppies that adorn coat lapels in Canada on Remembrance Day.
These shiny, red poppies appear even more evident in Dzama’s 2008 sculptural diorama entitled On the banks of the Red River, a monumental work directly modeled after his earlier drawing You gotta make room for the new ones. The shiny glaze on the ceramic sculptures imbue the red flowers with an artificial sheen that even more strongly suggests the plastic Remembrance Day poppies. Dzama’s dense grouping of huntsmen uniformly stand, like a military phalanx, as they point their rifles upwards at the assorted quarry. The unified stance of the huntsmen more closely recall the deadly precision of an infantry than the casualness of a hunting expedition.
In his recent article in Canadian Art magazine entitled “The Haunting: Marcel Dzama’s traumatic fantasy worlds”, art writer Joseph R. Wolin comments on the presence of a political subtext in You gotta make room for the new ones:
“The nearly identical appearances of the gentlemanly sportsmen suggest that we should identify them as if the scene were a political cartoon or a rather anachronistic allegory – the forces of industrial capitalism, militaristic mechanization or masculine colonialism.”12.
Wolin concludes his article on Dzama with the comment: “…by making reference to geopolitics with the ingenuous characters that inhabit a world of his own making, he grounds his work [in the] present tense.” Thus, Marcel Dzama has maintained his signature phantasmagoric imagery in recent work but has applied a political reading that feels very topical with regards to current geopolitics. This political subtext serves to ground his highly idiosyncratic work in the real world and provides the viewer with a small foothold on his otherwise strange, mysterious narratives.