MARCEL DZAMA: MORE FAMOUS DRAWINGS on view at Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow) from Wednesday (February 28) through March 28, opening reception (artist present) March 3, 2 to 5 pm. 416-538-8220. Rating: NNNNN
winnipeg -- it's 30 below, and five
members of Canada's most happening art collective, the Royal Art Lodge, are pulling on their parkas and debating whether they want to eat dinner at the new Chinese place or one of their habitual haunts.
It's a half-hour of dithering before the semi-ironic crew settle on C. Kelekis, where the only vegetables on the menu are coleslaw and chips. A certain lack of intensity makes it hard to believe that the Royal Art Lodge is a force to be reckoned with, yet founding member Marcel Dzama, at 26, is already a contender for the biggest name in Canadian art.
Since his graduation from the University of Manitoba in 97, his career has followed an almost fairy-tale arc. By 98, with Dzama's first solo show at L.A.'s Richard Heller Gallery, the proudly Canadian export was already picking up A-list Hollywood collectors.
When Drew Carey bought a piece, Dzama hung out with Ryan Stiles. Jim Carrey stopped by the gallery to support a fellow Canuck, bought a drawing and convinced Nicolas Cage that he should buy a Dzama, too.
The same show got delirious reviews in everything from the L.A. Times to Art Issues, but Dzama still wasn't convinced that he'd be able to make a living making art.
"I had pretty low expectations coming out of art school," he deadpans. "A month after that show I applied for a job at Wal-Mart. They turned me down."
Dzama speaks with the same kind of droll understatement and elegant attention to gory detail that has made his delicately executed, highly sexualized and macabre drawings earn some seriously impressive kudos.
He made the top spot on Art Forum's best-of-2000 list, where best-selling author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius) described Dzama's art as "Two per cent wit, ninety-eight per cent a fragile, fragile beauty -- perfect alchemy."
Dzama is designing Eggers's next book cover.
A big part of the Dzama legend comes from the way he gets his brown tones by using bottled root beer concentrate, but what's more telling is how, in Dzama's hands, brown becomes a cool colour. His distinctive line drawings are hand-tinted with a delicacy that appeals to fine arts insiders, while their mix of retro (20s through 50s) pop culture and highbrow references has a far-reaching appeal.
Kind of Jack Kirkby-meets-Samuel Beckett, though in Dzama's hands Captain America is liable to appear as a chain-smoking woman or wielding a knife or sporting a bear suit.
It's a sensibility that Dzama's been developing not only in his solo work but also in the twisted collaborative efforts of the Art Lodge.
The current Lodge lineup includes Dzama, his kid sister Hollie, their uncle Neil Farber (he's a year younger than Marcel), brothers Drue and Myles Langlois and Michael Dumontier. They share a spacious studio, crammed with art and instruments, in Winnipeg's historic Exchange district.
If on the surface they seem devoted to low-key creative noodling --over dinner the Art Lodgers discuss how they need to make sleeves for a vinyl album they pressed almost a year ago -- they're nonetheless at the centre of a growing scene.
Winnipeg-based filmmaker deco dawson (aka Daryl Kinaschuk), who cut his teeth working with Guy Madden, is in post-production on a 30-minute short, FILM(dzama). In it, Marcel plays a couple of roles, but his father, Maurice Dzama, plays the artist. Between them, the Langlois brothers have made most of the props and costumes.
It's being funded, in part, by the Andy Warhol Foundation, a fact that doesn't seem to have this rising art star particularly excited.
"I don't have creative control," he says with characteristic understatement. "So I won't know if it's any good until I see it."
The creepy, anthropomorphic trees and rodent-like creatures, idealized and occasionally brutalized femme fatales, bumbling bears and heartless Tin Men that populate Dzama's drawings may be deeply disturbing, but the underlying violence never feels gratuitous.
It comes from first-hand despair.
"I fell into this style of drawing after my house burned down (in 1996)," Dzama states in the handwritten acknowledgements in the catalogue for More Famous Drawings, the internationally touring solo show that's coming to Toronto's Olga Korper Gallery.
"I lived in a small hotel room, so there was no room for easel storage. I started using hotel stationery and the backs of placemats because it was easy to store."
Ask Dzama about the fire and this soft-spoken artist gets even quieter.
"The whole family was living in the Airliner Inn, without a fridge or stove," he whispers, showing me a motel brochure. "I just did art, and stopped socializing -- except for the Art Lodge."
The Lodge, made up of Dzama's closest friends and relatives, would rent a room for their weekly meetings, storing their collaborative collages in a suitcase between sessions.
And if most of the Dzamas' possessions --and a pet -- were lost, at least the family members, and photo albums, were spared. After their home was rebuilt, Dzama felt compelled to move back in with his mom and dad. He left to live with his girlfriend less than a year ago.
The fire experience goes a long way to explain why right now Dzama has no plans to leave his hometown.
"Why would I leave Winnipeg? The isolation is like a breeding ground for artists, and my parents and sisters and friends are here."
Not to mention his mentors, people like fine arts prof Alison Borlan, who introduced Dzama to Plug In's Wayne Baerwaldt. The artist-run centre's director offered Dzama his first show; he opted to show with the Art Lodge instead. Baerwaldt also introduced Dzama's work to Los Angeles.
Baerwaldt is putting himself on the curatorial map by assembling ambitious projects like Playing With Matches, which paired art by Beck and his grandfather, Fluxus giant Al Hansen, and has now put Dzama's More Famous Drawings on the road.
Still, New York must look tempting. Dzama's sold-out shows at SoHo's David Zwirner Gallery have been getting rave reviews in the New York Times, Village Voice and New Yorker. Not to mention the Art Forum thing.
"New York's so busy, I'd be over-stimulated," he says with a shy grin. "Besides, the monthly rent on the Art Lodge is only $310."
2001 Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon; Magnus Carlson Gallery, Stockholm
2000 Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver; Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston; Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, Montreal; David Zwirner, New York City; Plug In, Winnipeg
1999 Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica; Greene Gallery, Geneva
1998 Espace Purplex, Rio de Janeiro; Casa Triangulo, Sao Paolo; David Zwirner; Richard Heller; ARTPACE Gallery, San Antonio