Almost nothing about the booksigning for Marcel Dzama (and Spike Jonze) at David Zwimmer Gallery seemed normal. The gallery assistants selling the books were kind and attentive (even allowed me to bring in two of my own books). They said 'Thank you' with sincerity and asked my name in case I wanted my books personalized. I wore a smile from their show of kindness.
Being early, I took some time to look at the few huge Stan Douglas prints that lined the main gallery walls when another perky assistant approached me and asked if I was there for the signing. "Oh Great!" she replied as if I had just offered to buy her a new car. She shuttled me into the back rooms of the gallery where a small arrangement of Dzama paintings were on display, "We'll be starting soon. They are still setting up. Thanks for being patient!" Patient? It was only 4:55 and the signing was scheduled to start at 5:00.
I wound up being at the head of the small line that was gathering near the darkened entranceway of one of the larger galleries - a different gallery assistant apologized for the delay (5:02) with even more sincerity than the first. It was as if the closer you got to the area of the event, you were entering into a zone of infectious childlike happiness. I was soon to discover why. Upon being allowed to enter the signing - only one or two people at a time (Lisa Kereszi was my partner) - we were met in the darkened hallway by one of Dzama's 6 foot tall snowmen and a smaller childlike figure whose paper-mache head wore no discernible emotion. These two led us into a nearly pitch black space where off in the distance you could just make out a dimly lit table upon which rested four arms holding a couple of Sharpie markers.
Marcel and Spike took their time cheerfully drawing and signing. They personalized each book by completing the drawings each other started. They told us, "If we take too long you can watch our bear," off in the corner, a bear could be made out swaying to the rhythm of the light music, a beer can rested on the floor. After several minutes of signing and chatting (about Spike's amazing slow-motion pyrotechnical intro piece to the Lakai Fully Flared skate video) and thank you's (from them) we reentered the lit world (with the snowman and child showing us the way) and saw that the line had grown to dozens.
I had imagined the signing was going to be the usual white table affair shuttled along by impatient assistants which is a rational expectation, but for an artist like Dzama who creates not just drawings and paintings but entire worlds seemingly complete with history and mythology why would I expect a booksigning to step out of that world? A new book called The Infidels from Sies + Hoke Galerie and Druck Verlag Kettler is the latest offering of his recent work.
Dzama's world is populated with an expansive cast of hooded women, military men, snowmen, monsters, tree people, bats, and deer that appear in his paintings, drawings, films, dioramas and sculptures. Its basic language is that of a primitive children's TV show - that is, if children were allowed to be exposed to violence, sexuality and the savage fantasies common to his prolific output.
His watercolor paintings often appear as choreographed panoramas of states of war. In The Infidels, his balaclava hooded women (that might remind us of a blend of Hamas and Cossacks) seduce with their sexuality and wage war while pirouetting as if in a Busby Berkeley film. Acts of violence and grace are acted out on plain fields of paper where gravity is upset and history and fantasy collide.
Throughout the work there are ties to great Dadaists like Duchamp, Picabia, and Hoch. His bizarre fetishes, sardonic political commentary and dark humor are presented in vignettes which confuse how we respond. An act of violence is waged with a smile or a victim wears an expression of nonchalance. It is hard to determine in Dzama's work who are the allies and who are the foes. One drawing will belie the alliances of another. His skewed emotional dynamics seem to hint that within the chaos of violence, everyone is to blame - victim and perpetrator alike. Mob mentality rules.
As with most of Dzama's books, The Infidels is elegant. He often combines his watercolors with pages from his sketchbooks which are stream of consciousness collage, some of which working diagrams of new characters, dioramas, and ideas. Rarely are his books simply a presentation of plates but beautifully designed works which draw you into his world through experimental forms. His book The Course of Human History Personified is half plates and an essay and half a double-sided, fold-out panormama which stretches to several feet. His book from David Zwirner from 2008 Even the Ghost of the Past is two books attached by the same covers making two entry points to the work and process.
Reducing Dzama to simple metaphors does an injustice and the work itself seems to resist such readings as much as inspire them. His dream-like scenes feel like part of a larger narrative just out of our reach as if its own history has not yet been written. With these books, Dzama is piecing together his own printed history, a record where he is free to play and create. With childlike enthusiasm I follow along, and fondly remember the day I saw a drunken bear dancing in a darkened corner.