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Marcel Dzama

More Famous Drawings at Olga Korper
by Clint Roenisch

Winnipeg is home to cold winters, flat prairie views, and cheap rent. These three conditions tend to foster the imagination (or at least a deep-seated ambivalence for the place). Marcel Dzama is the alarmingly prolific and talented artist from there whose drawings are evidence of long periods spent indoors, imagining. These works, all on the same, simple, 13 x 10 inch paper, have been fluttering across the globe of late. They have rained down from the sky via the jet trails left by Wayne Baerwaldt, übercurator, world-wandering culture worker, and the organizer, through Winnipeg's Plug In Gallery, of the exhibition at Olga Korper. Baerwaldt lives on a plane but still looks moisturized, and has been instrumental in promoting Dzama's work. It has now been seen in countless venues, including the venerable Richard Heller in Santa Monica and David Zwirner in New York. But it is also the obvious strength of the work itself that has been so warmly received.

The Toronto exhibition, More Famous Drawings, is a large body of work that has been traveling to museums over the last two years. The drawings themselves are essential Dzama: small, brown but deliciously so, violent but in a harmless way, sexual but comically, ambiguous but charming, and anthropomorphically curious. Dzama unleashes a benign, bizarre array of characters upon each other, creating a small event orbiting the center of each page. They feud, like when a white-gloved, bipedal, upper-class frog is insulted and demands a duel. And they smoke, but in the best Roaring Twenties sense, where cigarettes are cradled by yummy femme fatales with fabulous bobs while fending off the attentions of a bear and a gopher. They also fuck, of course, like you see every day when the guy has a tree for a head and the girl has a tail. They pull guns on each other, but again in a very familiar way, where a Mexican stand-off erupts between cowboys, one of whom has the upper hand by being half-lodged in the sheltering crevice of a nude woman's ass. This tactic also cleverly and crudely reverses the Sam Peckinpah Western plot device known as the box canyon. And these characters play cards, but half the players are shifty eyed Tin Men and the lizard is armed. Finally, they fall in love, like when a crowd cheers the hometown return of a nude woman, lovingly holding up placards that read "Welcome Home Nude Woman!"

Adding to their charm (while perhaps contributing to their archival decline) is Dzama's use of extract of root beer to color his work. He has learned to coax out a feast of browns that would make a tribe of designers at Wallpaper magazine (another Winnipeg creation) salivate. This use of organic material recalls Ed Ruscha's earlier experiments with gunpowder and dried vegetable pigments. Dzama's work also shares Ruscha's wit and humor, depicting pictorially what Ruscha wrote graphically, such as Ruscha's 99% Devil, 1% Angel, and Faster Than A Speeding Beanstalk. Dzama's drawings also bring to mind the caricatures of George Grosz, but probably as antithesis. Where Grosz satirically and savagely recorded the unpleasantness and depravity of Germany after World War I, Dzama is all levity and innocence, his drawings tied to no era, their narratives critical of nothing. But that is also their strength. They float in the postmodern ether, open-ended and pan-cultural. And as a young man living in Winnipeg (paying $310 a month at the Royal Art Lodge, an amount that in Dzama dollars is half of one drawing), what is there to be critical of? The destruction of heritage buildings? The plight of wheat farmers? The icy corner of broken dreams that is Portage and Main?

In a characteristically forward-thinking moment, Baerwaldt and Dzama purposely left a blank page near the back of their fine catalogue. Upon purchase, Dzama obligingly fills in the space with a semi-custom drawing. Needless to say, as the show has traveled, so has Dzama, spending hours at openings hunched over with a cramped wrist while lineups snake out the door. He is polite and accommodating as yet another fan asks for something a bit naughty involving a skull, a svelte, sword-wielding beauty, and a hot lunch. OK, that was me.

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