Marcel Dzama: Puppets, Pawns and Prophets

Courtesy David Zwirner
Marcel Dzama, ‘Descending Pawns’, 2012.
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Gun-toting debutantes and leering stormtroopers; cavorting harlequins in polkadotted bodystockings; folkloric animals and carnivalesque rites – the basic elements of Marcel Dzama’s fantasy world may not have changed much over the years, but what an enthralling, darkly captivating world it is. Drawn in muted, 1940s colours, his frolicking, fighting, fornicating figures give the sense of some vast, unfolding drama, full of endlessly intricate variations, like a sort of ritualized dance or battle – no wonder the Canadian has recently used the game of chess as a linking theme, with personifications of pieces appearing in his immense wall of pictures, and film works that describe a kind of allegorical choreography of opposing sides.

But while his drawings feel dreamily suggestive and open-ended, his films too often tend to come off as slightly meandering and baffling. The quad-screen format of ‘Sister Squares’ features dancers in chess costumes, a mariachi band, a paper-maché-headed audience – but none of the moves seem to correlate to the game diagram being played out. Perhaps ‘Death Disco Dance’, viewed through the gallery’s front window, will clarify things – but unfortunately the stacked TVs are unwatchable when the sun is shining outside. Or when it’s raining. Or when the weather is virtually any condition in between.

Still, Dzama is so incredibly prolific, it’s impossible not to be won over. In the upstairs gallery are more drawings, a better video, some theatrical dioramas packed with cut-out figures, a set of Metropolis-like chess heads made from recycled cans, and a curiosities-box in homage to Marcel Duchamp, the prototypical chess-playing artist – so many different images and media, in fact, that you realize that Dzama’s brilliance isn’t just his knack for drawing, but also what might be called his positional play: marshaling these elements into a coherent, single vision, an imagined realm that’s at once deeply sinister and utterly beguiling.

Gabriel Coxhead

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