Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord

Marcel Dzama, The Ditch of the Flatterers, 2007, ink and watercolor on paper, 13 1/3 x 10 5/8".

IN THE EIGHTH CIRCLE of Dante’s hell reside the Sowers of Discord, those who have caused divisiveness in their families, cities, and faiths. The poet, deploying his ever-apt touch with punishments, describes them being sliced and diced by a demonic swordsman. Since the late 1990s, Marcel Dzama has populated his ink-and-watercolor drawings with sundry dismemberments and wounds accomplished by swords, knives, arrows, guns, bats, and the occasional mace; the malevolent images may be inspired by hellish doings, but this is hell as circus ring or costume ball. Dzama’s discord sowers are a curiously whimsical and varied crew: jesters, bandits, nineteenth-century military officers, aristocratic hunters, Maoists, centaurs, masturbating women, ballerinas, terrorists, pipe smokers in wheelchairs, superheroes, and elephant men. Arranged as if on blank stages rather than in any kind of naturalistic setting, the characters cavort (violently, sexually, ridiculously, or all of these together) like specimens presented for inspection. Dzama’s figures and props repeat with subtle variation from image to image, and a strong sense of typology links his drawings with other works included in this volume—collages, sculptures, and dioramas. The Canadian artist draws on a wide array of sources visual and literary; elements of Duchamp, Cornell, Dalí, Bosch, and comic books mix with Blake, Dante, and Joyce. And, particularly when considering Dzama’s drawings, his cutout style of figuration, lighthearted depiction of bloody deeds, and predilection for theatrical scenes all suggest close kinship with Henry Darger. Whether this bouillabaisse of influences inspired Dzama’s aesthetic of incongruity or that artistic goal led him to seek these multiple mentors, the effect is the same—a densely allusive art that is at once obvious and esoteric.

In the drawing titled The Ditch of the Flatterers (above), a naked woman squats over a hole below which a man in formal dress feeds on a cord or some kind of liquid that flows from between her legs. Hooded figures with AK-47s guard her, and a dog, half buried in his own pit, smokes a pipe. Of course, all of this takes place on a floating, cross-sectioned piece of earth. Where else? That the bow-tie- and white-shoe-clad gentleman reclines in a patently womblike lair only further weights the already heavy psychosexual intonations. But the drama isn’t quite so schematic: One of the terrorist types lasciviously regards the woman while his partner looks at him with nascent disapproval; in fact, he seems to be lowering his weapon in the other man’s direction. Further convoluting this subplot (or is it the main event?) is the pipe-puffing mutt, an animal whose placid, iconic cast calls to mind both Ward Cleaver and the Egyptian god Anubis. This may not be quite what Dante imagined, but these figures—indeed, nearly all of Dzama’s images—sow their own piquant strain of discord. His is a fun-house hell where sinners are condemned to an eternity of enigma.