People are Strange
Marcel Dzama needs his head examined. The head, which is embedded in a torso that appears to be made of tin, is being harassed by a group of disapproving young men and women with neat haircuts and polo necks. They may be absentees from an early 1950s anti-pot public service film, although this is not clear.
Nearby, two girls in Captain America catsuits clink martini glasses with a brown bear. The bear lolls his tongue, puffs on a fag. Robot people, prising open their metallic bodies, reveal themselves to be operated by brown cats. Wicked flying monkeys from the Land of Oz use axes to skin alive an oversized gerbil. Naked girls, fresh from college in the 1930s, squirt breast milk into each other's mouth. They seem to be enjoying it to the point of fainting. Another girl sits at a dressing table, applying her make-up through a tweed balaclava.
All of the above, and many hundreds of other twisted vignettes, are the work of Canadian artist Marcel Dzama, who draws in ink and watercolour, and sometimes root beer, on uniformly sized 35 by 28 cm sheets of creamy manila paper. His brown, blue-grey and olive palette has the impoverished quality of 1950s interior design. His line is both quick and hesitant, kind of wrong but also right. Certainly he knows what he's doing. His protagonists float in the centre of the page, lacking any background, as if clawed back from some half-remembered dream narrative and pinned down before they evaporate.
Dzama's drawings depict problem situations: the last frame of the comic book thriller, the cliffhanger. But the idiosyncratic nature of his invented characters means that the moment of crisis is, for the viewer, multiplied and refracted: not only are the brown bears performing some kind of threatening ritual dance around the Burning Flame Man, but who are the brown bears anyway, and who the fuck is the Burning Flame Man? We get only the bare bones, a narrative fait accompli, the strength of which lies in Dzama's complete failure to explain anything.
The best drawings don't move towards a pay-off. They're free of the burden of Raymond Pettibon's existential angst, but also of David Shrigley's punchline wit. There's no resolution, just a resonance that comes from recognizing ... what? Something we may have dreamed ourselves? Dzama himself, meanwhile, is absent, on to the next scene, impelled by the spirit of automatic writing. He has said, 'What you see in the drawing is exactly the mood I was in.' He's a little like the puppet maker J. F. Sebastian in Blade Runner: essentially benevolent but not entirely in control of his creations.
Dzama's sensibility, though, is accessible. Although the circumstances of each scene tend to mystify, the method is explanatory, as in comics. It's Pop Art in the era of silent films. And as the villains and heroines of silent films, to compensate for their muteness, wear their intentions on their sleeves - the cruel, mascara-ed glance of the scheming cad, the wide-eyed terror of the maiden tied to the tracks - so Dzama's figures carry out their tasks with a theatrical flourish, as if they've been rifling through the dressing-up box for costumes. (People dress up a lot in Dzama's drawings: in bear suits, alligator suits, robot suits, superhero suits, two-piece suits ...) The only difference is that once imprisoned in the cell of the drawing (and the images share the flat graphic quality of animation stills) Dzama's characters are often appalled to find their intentions spinning away, derailed and diverted down unexpected and unintended paths. A slick bounder in bow tie and dinner jacket is perplexed to find himself carrying in his arms a chain-smoking and bitter-looking dwarf in a romper suit. A man in a brown jacket and hat, to his surprise and consternation, shoots off his own head with a pistol. He, like us, is an innocent bystander roped into the proceedings, another victim of the artist's perambulatory imagination.
Dzama's work is not heavy: it's quick and fleeting, a fact he acknowledges in its exhibition, pinning as many as 500 drawings to a wall. He prefers not to stipulate visual or sequential groupings. Although familiar characters crop up repeatedly - bears, cats, catwomen, striped worms - it is to no narrative avail. 'There is a narrative', he says, 'but it's so muddled that it's like an inside joke that has gone too far.' From the surfeit of frozen moments - hundreds of drawings, hundreds of scenarios - the viewers can stitch together whatever sequence they like.
But if they have no pretensions to gravitas, Dzama's strongest images do have an oblique and nasty psychological edge which usually stems from the sexual or scatological. The cream manila paper itself mimics flesh. His flapper girls and school prefects may look prim, but they're not prudish: a svelte blonde belies her Enid Blyton bob by taking a dump on Batman's head; luckily he's wearing his Bat-hood and gauntlets, though not much else. A girl crouches naked on all fours, the better to suck on the tail of a lion; another lies back and opens herself to the lapping tongue of a donkey.
There's something English about this sexuality (or maybe it's a Canadian thing): deviant but politely done, buttoned-up but with a penchant for fetishism or a spot of bestiality. In Dzama's hands all action is equal, and equally mysterious. The inside of an alligator suit is as good a place as any to have sex. Sex in these drawings, in fact, has an innocence and freshness to it; not the prurience of naughty seaside postcards but the greedy curiosity of pubescent kids. Just devil kids.These are the deranged and random exploits of a gang of sub-standard cartoon characters and 1930s B-movie hopefuls who have leaked off the celluloid in an old film archive. Maybe the platinum is oxidizing and decaying. Maybe that's what's mutating their features and warping their minds, spilling them out of the canisters into a promiscuous goo of disconnected and pleasantly disturbing fantasies. Put in a call to the polo-necked kids with the Hitler hair-dos: maybe this is the inside of Marcel Dzama's head.
First published in Issue 59