Marcel Dzama’s world of disturbed characters has expanded into the third dimension and the cinematic realm. For his fifth solo show at David Zwirner, Even the Ghost of the Past, the young Canadian artist departs from his typically quaint drawings in a showy display of dioramas, film, and complex compositions. With the added complexity, the artist probes more deeply into issues surrounding the connection of sexuality to violence, violence to sexuality, and larger themes of gender-related power constructs.
The first room of the exhibition contains several of the artist’s characteristic whimsically demented drawings, where cute animals intermix with a perverted array of carnival-like men and women engaged in lascivious acts in muted colors against a white background. In Poor Sacrifices of our enmity, a cluster of female archers hunch over their drawn bow and arrows, aiming at a central bull figure or randomly into space. The women are desexualized through their plain dress and hidden bodies, representing a threatening female archetype reminiscent of the Amazons.
In the thematically rich drawing The Hidden, the unknowable, and the unthinkable, an oversized naked woman is being stretched from each limb while other naked women with masks, naked men, and a few clothed figures play on her body like a jungle gym. One man is seen lynched from her extended arm. Another naked woman crawls out of the neck of the headless body. Possibly alluding to the mythical story of the Maenads ripping their victims limb from limb, the drawing represents a vicious yet playful destruction of the female body, possibly by the male artist. A fully clothed male is suspended in the air with a paint brush and a half-finished canvas, suggesting that the stretched central figure is a model or muse.
In the drawing The ghost of Picabia will corrupt the souls of the youth, the Dadaist artist Francis Picabia, who was known for having affairs with his dancer models, is referenced through the depiction of a male figure clothed head-to-toe in black and holding a bull-whip that is directed at a line of young girls dancing. Once again investigating the relationship of male artist to female subject, Dzama creates a troubling look at sexual dynamics in relation to positions of power and submission.
The characters from Dzama’s small-scale drawings are inflated into 3-D dioramas in the second room of the exhibition, recessed into the walls and dimly lit. In First Born, a large bear figure stands holding a woman’s legless and armless body in the air while his other arm is outstretched, grasping a club-like object, ready to strike the woman. A man in a suit reaches up to stop the bear from beating the woman, a static and generally expressionless look on his face. A woman (the man’s significant other?) stands cautiously behind him, holding his hat. Strongly suggesting domestic abuse but portrayed with a surrealistic distance, Dzama’s cool depiction of violence against women is intriguing and discomforting in its ambiguity.
In what is the most disturbing piece of the show, the diorama The Underground, three masked terrorists with guns stand over a naked, squatting woman with a tube running out of her vagina and into the mouth of a man in a suit lounging in a stomach-shaped mole hole. Dzama typically leaves his art open for interpretation, but this particular piece has an accompanying artist page in a display case in the first room of the exhibit. The artist notes that there should be a yellow light shining on the tube to represent urine, erasing what could be a less provacative perception of the tube as an umbilical cord and the man as gestating in a womb-like structure. With this information the violent undertones of the scene are centralized, placing the woman in a position of shame, intimidation, and sexual victimization at the hands of the men.
The sound of a piano (live on certain Saturdays) beckons the viewer to sit in one of the two rows of theater seats to watch the silent film, Lotus Eaters (2005), in the final room of the exhibition. The most prevalent female archetype in Dzama’s drawings, the femme fatale, comes to life as the artist’s deceased wife whom he, like Orpheus, frantically searches for in the afterlife. Although the film is ultimately entertaining and enjoyable from a formalist standpoint, the puzzling sexual dynamics between man and woman, artist and subject, linger unanswered.
The suggestion of male dominance and female submission underlies Dzama’s current body of work. While a few examples of sadomasochism are present in the drawings, the overall power dynamics relate mainly to gender constructs. If the general context of the exhibition would have been sadomasochistic, then the submission of the females would have taken on a new (and less negative) connotation, representing sexual play rather than a real inconsistency in power. Aside from the overtly negative portrayal of women, the psychological complexities behind Dzama’s art are ultimately intriguing partially because they represent an innate connection between sex and violence that is often ignored but consistently present throughout human history.