David Zwirner March 6 – April 19, 2008
How does a recognizable phenomenon emerge from the isolated activities of a few unrelated individuals doing their own thing? Is it a chain reaction, or does the thing spontaneously swell from the collective consciousness of a generation in a single movement? Did one person start doing the hustle in 1975, then another, and another, until it lit a disco bonfire at Chicago’s Comiskey Park four years later? Or was there something in the air at that very moment that made people jump onto the dance floor simultaneously? The answer has busied the minds of social anthropologists and Malcolm Gladwell for years, but it’s safe to say that such phenomena are much easier to diagram after they’ve found purchase in our culture than while they’re still emerging.
On March 6, Marcel Dzama’s anticipated exhibition, Even the Ghost of the Past, opened at David Zwirner, marking the cresting of the neo-folk floodwaters. His work, once groundbreaking and as fresh as the air in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he’s from, now looks more familiar than ever. Along with his widely recognized works on paper and sculptures, Dzama offers a darkened room of eight dioramas and Lotus Eaters (2005), a silent film partially shot with a Fisher Price PixelVision toy video camera (transferred to DVD for the exhibition) and accompanied on certain days by live piano music. The high/low ambiguity that has become Dzama’s trademark is on full display in the grainy black-and-white, nickelodeon-style video, which breaks the ice with humor before its plaintive music and clownish onscreen antics begin to play on our sympathies. I immediately thought of Garland, T.J. Wilcox’s video about the Romanovs at the Whitney Biennial two years ago.
Dzama has been pairing hard-edged, topical imagery against soft-focused, fairytale tableaus for over a decade, and his drawings in Ghost aren’t much of a departure. “Inflated Threat” (2007), an ink, watercolor and graphite work on antiqued paper, pits an anachronistic mix of fairytale aggressors, from cavalry horsemen to medieval archers, against masked terrorists. The melee spreads from the center of the page outward, disregarding perspective, with scores of embattled earth-toned figures drawn against a blank manila background. Despite Dzama’s unmistakable intimations about America’s trigger-happy response to terrorist threats, his treatment is fanciful enough to raise the politics above the clumsy or didactic. Dzama’s politics are a delayed effect that emerges only after the precious, storybook quality of the drawing has engaged the viewer; it’s the spoonful of sugar that makes his medicine go down. With titles such as “The souls in purgatory of his soldiers and his horse and the dead man” (2007) Dzama deliberately crafts viewers’ expectations, conjuring images of children reading exotic, Kiplingesque stories by candlelight from leatherbound books. In “The Underground” (2008), a disturbing diorama depicting three masked gunmen standing over two very compromised captives, Dzama somehow manages to mitigate the scene’s abject raunchiness, leaving it psychologically ambiguous.
Since forming his now legendary “Royal Art Lodge” collective in 1996, Dzama’s informal approach to art has made him a darling in an art world governed by strategic thinking and high-profile master’s programs. His ability to offset high drama with eccentric comedy has always reminded me of Wes Anderson’s films. Hopefully, Dzama won’t bear the critical punishment Anderson has received from being knocked off so many times that the original is indistinguishable from the imitation. Like Anderson, Dzama was country before country was cool… and as a result, his art is being turned into an artform by a lot of young artists. Maybe there’s no better compliment than to be seen as a stylistic beacon, as long as you can avoid going down when the ship you built starts to sink. Though it shouldn’t matter how people regard an artist in a cocktail party discussion, if you’re not made of wood, you have to hope that history sorts things out responsibly.
There has been a lot written about the neo-folk, or more pejoratively, faux-folk phenomenon lately. Many have cited attributes such as empty backgrounds and ambiguously antiquated or nostalgic imagery, but visual indicators are only the cosmetic evidence of a phenomenon. In the case of Dzama and his many disciples, the real constant is the veneer of the genuine that, for them, can only be accessed via the past and the distant. There’s a longing for innocence and heroism in the work of Dzama and those he’s inspired—such as Amy Cutler and a good portion of the Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica (which happens to show Dzama’s work as well)—but Dzama’s nostalgia still resonates as the next best thing to the time machine they wish they had. Let’s hope that as contemporary history floats on, the fantastical, folk-flooded landscape doesn’t toss Dzama out with his bathwater.