Marcel Dzama mixes mythology, wit and politics in a new series of paintings

An exhibition of new works at David Zwirner Hong Kong features paintings and sculptures that give a nod to Blake and Duchamp as well as the all-pervading influence of politics in the age of Trump

Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama is renowned for his intricate and surreal paintings, drawings and installations that have appeared in galleries and museums across the world as well as in music videos and on album covers for the likes of Beck and They Might Be Giants.

A new exhibition at David Zwirner Hong Kong marks Dzama’s first exhibition in China and features paintings, drawings, and a film, all packed with the artist’s distinctive characters set in fantastical scenes.

And who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? or A rapture, a butterfly, a dancer and a bowie knife, 2018; all images: © Marcel Dzama, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner
Moustiques domestiques #9 (or I’ll trap this moment before it’s ripe), 2018
Installation view at David Zwirner Hong Kong

Of his working process, Dzama says “Sometimes I will start with just a blank page and do an automatic drawing. Other times I’ll have an image in mind or in front of me, and I’ll use it as a reference in my composition. I think I’m influenced by making films. I subconsciously think about the rule of thirds, the page divided into nine equal segments by two vertical and two horizontal lines, with the most important elements at the points where the lines intersect. But I purposely break those rules from time to time. The medium I start with is graphite, and then with the smaller drawings I’ll use watercolour paint, and the larger drawings are acrylic paint. Every now and then, though, I’ll keep them just in graphite.”

Dzama cites references to scenes of rebirth, as well as classical mythology and the art of William Blake and Marcel Duchamp in these new works. Subtle references to politics can also be seen. Of this, Dzama, who is based in New York, comments, “This situation right now in the United States with Trump makes you want to just burn it all down and start over…. I don’t censor myself. If you’re sending out a political message, it has only one interpretation. But when I do an automatic drawing, it’s open to many interpretations.”

As it all falls away, my love and I will ride away, 2018
The spirits of the air live off of the smell of revolution, 2018

New York itself has also had an influence on the imagery in Dzama’s art. “When I lived in Canada, my drawings were really minimal—usually two or three characters on a page,” he says. “Then, when I moved to New York, all of a sudden I made these very claustrophobic-looking drawings with characters everywhere.

“I wanted to give them some sort of order, so I put them in dance positions. Then I started buying old dance magazines from the 70s and the 60s. I would draw the poses from the magazines and would read the articles. I became fascinated. Ballet came to me from giving order to chaos.”

Crossing The Line by Marcel Dzama is on show at David Zwirner Hong Kong until March 9;