JCanadian artist Marcel Dzama cannot stick to one path. While studying art at the University of Manitoba in the mid-1990s, he played in bands, and lots of them. Among others, there was Professor Moriarty for heavy rock, Tumbleweed for country music and Danceatron for, well, dance music. This freewheeling spirit has continued throughout the 48-year-old’s career. Best known for his figurative drawings, Dzama also creates dioramas, puppets, costumes, scenographies, films, songs, fanzines and sculptures. He has collaborated with Spike Jonze, Maurice Sendak, Beck, Kim Gordon, Raymond Pettibon, Bob Dylan and the New York City Ballet. It’s a lot.
“I keep really bad hours,” he says in a hoarse voice from his beach house on Long Island, after waking up. “I stayed up until five o’clock last night to finish a new painting.” It has a charming, sweet, unearthly quality to it. Being so prolific means he needs to remember what he’s done. “The titles that I forget”, he apologizes. “I’m going to blame my memory on the pandemic.”
During the lockdown, everything about collaboration and performance evaporated and Dzama’s life boiled down to the essentials: his wife, his young son and his drawings. Her images have often combined innocence and menace, like book illustrations of violent, surreal fairy tales, but Child of Midnight, her new exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in London, leans towards lush escapism. “The last few years have been so traumatic that I wanted to have something beautiful there,” he says. “A lot of my earlier work was more worldly tired.”
Photographs from pre-pandemic trips to Morocco and Mexico lit up the show’s friendly moons, beaming stars and tropical oceans, rendered in watercolor, graphite and pearlescent acrylic ink, while Neil Young’s 1974 album On the Beach provided the late-night soundtrack. According to the gallery’s website, the waterscapes “seem to portend the continued degradation of the natural world,” but Dzama doesn’t seem sure. “I’m really concerned about climate change, but it’s not blatant,” he says. “I’m very relaxed when I’m working on it.” His political cartoons are faster and angrier. “They are actually very stressful. There’s this weird energy that I need to get out and once that’s done I can relax a bit.
As a child, Dzama liked to draw board games and cereal boxes on the back. “I’m from Winnipeg and the winters are very long there, so it’s almost like isolation,” he says. “A lot of it comes down to the fact that we didn’t have much to do.”
He was still living with his parents when their house burned down in 1996, destroying most of his art school paintings. He replenished his portfolio of temporary accommodations by drawing inspiration from hotel stationery while watching HBO. These drawings became his thesis project, which caught the attention of a visiting curator and earned him his first exhibition at the age of 23. Dzama coins were only $20 then but are worth much more now, with famous collectors like Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage. .
Dzama is currently working with members of LCD Soundsystem on the music for A Flower of Evil, a long-gestating mockumentary that dates back to an unusually busy and acclaimed time in 2016. “I could feel my ego growing, so I wanted to make it fun to myself,” he said. “Amy Sedaris plays me like this asshole artist who is very full of herself.”
Talking to him now, it’s very hard to imagine. How’s his ego these days? He laughs softly: “I think it’s normal.”
Late Fashion: Five Child of Midnight Works
Even the moon is uneasy, 2022
“It’s a sketch idea for a possible performance. I’m obsessed with the moon because of a trip to Morocco. It was bigger than I had ever seen: red and extra shiny. Since then, it has been incorporated into my work.
Midnight’s Children, 2022
“I was trying to balance that feeling you get when you stare into space, but also the panic of what you’re going through right now. Salman Rushdie had just been stabbed. Also, my son was watching Ms. Marvel, who talks about the score, so it was in the air.
So they say, everything will be fine, 2021 (main image)
“I did an underwater series and they feel like swimming. There’s a meditative feel to it. I wanted to do one that I could put in my son’s room, so I made it very positive. They drifting out to sea with a boat full of kittens. I’ve always loved Maurice Sendak’s children’s books. There’s this advantage in his work. When we were drawing together, I was actually nostalgic for the moment: I didn’t can’t believe this is happening!
By the Red River, 2008
“The Red River runs through Winnipeg, but it was more of a blood river idea,” says Dzama. “These hunters shoot these animals and they fall from the sky. I was also thinking about colonialism and the greed of all the companies that profit from animals.
The steps of Death Disco Dance, 2013
“When I was in Mexico I made this movie called A Game of Chess, a live chess ballet. The sun had just set so I said we should do something quick, so we did a little dance. I did a loop and played a disco beat on a little drum machine. I wanted the design to represent that piece.
Child of Midnight is at David Zwirner Gallery, London, November 17uh until December 22.