Friday, December 6, 2013

Marcel Dzama, Francis Picabia, and the Adoration of the Calf

The Canadian artist Marcel Dzama made a recent appearance at Book Court in Brooklyn to  launch two new catalogues of his work. One, Sower of Discord, is a career-spanning monograph produced beautifully by Abrams that features works from Dzama's early years with the Royal Art Lodge up through his forays into film and sculpture with David Zwirner Gallery. The second book, Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets was published in conjunction with Dzama's show at Zwirner's London space this summer.

Although I missed the event, I was able to pick up signed copies of both books. At the bookstore I discovered that each copy had a different drawing in it, including beasts, bats, red-lipped ladies and big vaudevillian heads. After much deliberation, I picked these two beauties:

I really like Marcel Dzama and I'm not embarrassed to admit to have been first introduced to his work through McSweeney's. He illustrated a Nick Hornby mix-tape-but-a-book called Songbook and had a portfolio of little prints called The Berlin Years published a year or so later by McSweeney's. They brilliantly (supposedly) snuck in five original drawings in five portfolios, causing The Berlin Years to become wildly collectible. His ink-and-rootbeer drawings of tree-men, outlaws, bears and bats struck the younger me as a quirky Henry Darger-esque world-building canon, but as I got older and started seeing Dzama's exhibitions in person, I realized that he was developing as an artist as I was developing as a viewer -- I began to see references in his work to other artists and eras that I had previously not yet learned about. His work got busier and more layered and he began experimenting more with various new forms. While his early drawings were fun and fascinating (an octopus in a tree, a four-person tree-man mariachi band, etc), now his work oozes meaning. Marcel Dzama's as fun an artist to watch evolve as his work is to look at.

In addition to some very fascinating sculptures, the Zwirner book has a number of exciting referential pieces. Let's take a look at one:

This is an iphone detail of a work from 2012 called "Opportunities mingling with combatants". It has lots of signature Dzama-esque cacophony and whimsy. The masked pianists, the striped corpses, and the conclave of mysterious figures in room 391. But wait, who's that singing backup?


It's none other than Erwin Blumfeld's "Dictator, Paris" (left), an important surrealist photo from 1937. Or could it be trickster-artist Francis Picabia's "Adoration of the Calf" (1941-1492, right)?


The Picabia link is a fascinating one. Although visually there's very little to link Picabia and Dzama, it's obvious that Dzama is influenced by Picabia's approach to surrealism, self re-invention, and dadaist subversiveness. Another clue is room 391, which typographically looks very familiar:

Picabia published a surrealist magazine called 391 from 1917-1924. This was in Picabia's phase of making strange mechanical artworks and long before he began painting from found photography. The above light machine/viewmaster reel actually makes an appearance in another work called "Myths, manifestos, and monsters" (2013) as the head of a figure. I pulled the below detail from amazon's page:

Absolutely fascinating. The calf-man, with an open tunic, can be seen here as well. I'll save a discussion of what all these connections mean for another day (as I've not yet moved past the excitement of discovering these links). I'll leave you with another untapped connection, a music video Dzama directed for a band called "Department of Eagles" (a title taken from Belgian surrealist Marcel Broodthaers's fictional museum, the "Departement des aigles"):

Currently reading:
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon

Currently listening to:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Live from KCRW

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