Marcel Dzama: Crossing the Line
Marcel Dzama: Crossing the Line was published by David Zwirner Books on the occasion of a 2019 exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, Hong Kong. Dzama is a Canadian artist who lives in New York City. Best known for his drawings, he has worked extensively in painting, sculpture, collage, and film, and has created costumes and stage designs for the New York City Ballet and etchings at Crown Point Press. Influenced by folk and contemporary styles, the artist’s drawings are of twisted fairytale universes with recurring symbols and imagery. Within the pages of this book, so much action is happening in each drawing that something new and unexpected can be seen with every glance. Predominantly in black, red and blue, the drawings follow masked women in polka-dot dresses who are often engaged in some sort of trickery. Some drawings fill the entire page; this allows the viewer to see details of the characters’ facial expressions and elaborate costumes. Dzama also incorporates words written in various languages, such as French, Spanish, and Chinese, which give the work a storybook feel.
The book includes a candid and thorough interview with Marcel Dzama by Laila Pedro. In it, Dzama talks about his practice, about what inspires him, and about the current political state in America. Dzama explains to Pedro that he’s always been fascinated by villainous characters in history, media, and mythology. The cartoons he watches with his young son have been a big influence in his art; older cartoons, like Pinocchio, from Dzama’s own childhood have been sources of ideas as well. For this exhibition, however, many of the drawings were influenced by horse racing. Dzama and a friend went together to the races every other weekend for a period of time, and when Dzama visited Hong Kong he learned that horse racing is an important part of Hong Kong culture. Laila Pedro and Dzama discuss many of the artist’s other influences, including politics, ballet, the Cheshire Cat, the Dada movement, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Francisco Goya.
In Dzama’s drawing, Moustiques domestiques #9 (or I’ll trap this moment before it’s ripe), two horses with jockeys in blue-patterned silks come from the left side. A masked woman pierced with arrows dashes above them and another masked woman sits below the horses, aiming a bow and arrow at a group of five women dressed in red, standing in different poses. One of them aims an arrow toward the oncoming jockeys, two appear to be dancing, and a fourth, with an arrow stuck her hand, is held up by the fifth. At the feet of the women are cartoon animals who have also been struck by arrows. A wolf or bear lies on the ground, a donkey stands on its hind legs, and another donkey looks back in terror at its arrow-riddled behind. Two bats fly in the air with strings coming from their backs, like puppets. An ominous red phoenix-like bird with white eyes and a white star on its forehead hovers in the top middle, emitting a yellow glow. Part of the title (Moustiques domestiques) is written in cursive at the bottom. This translates from French as “domestic mosquitoes.” By referencing mosquitoes, Dzama implies that the arrows could be symbols for bites; the bats in the scene have similar vampiric qualities. The arrows might also symbolize death, in contrast to the phoenix, which symbolizes rebirth. Many of Dzama’s illustrations allude to the theme of life and death, hope and fear.
A few pages of Dzama’s book, Crossing the Line, are images of a storyboard for a film included in the exhibition. The storyboard is mapped out in a sequence of seven ripped-out pink papers with drawings of costumed characters. Text is scrawled on the pages describing what the actors in the film say or do in each scene; for example, one of the directions on page four is “Amy jumps in front of the camera and blocks the dancers.” The dancers are dressed in a polka dot style that appears throughout Dzama’s work. The images offer an intimate look at the artist’s thought process by using trial and error.
This book is exciting to look at and read, like a graphic novel that you don’t want to end. Fortunately, Marcel Dzama’s signature style is not limited to books, but expands to sculpture, film, ballet, and printmaking. His drawings and prints offer a visual language of beautiful, dark revolutionary tales that tackle modern day subjects.
Crown Point Press staff review by Carleigh Koger, 2019