Fanciful Violence & Strange Playfellows: The Enigmatic Art of Marcel Dzama | Haute Macabre

Fanciful Violence & Strange Playfellows: The Enigmatic Art of Marcel Dzama


When initially living on my own in my early 20’s, I received a mysterious package in the mail during one of the first few weeks in my small apartment. In a plain brown envelope, with no return address and no accompanying note, I found a generic paperback mystery novel. Stuck between the pages between chapters three and four was a faded Polaroid of a man with a ridiculously large, dangling penis. His eyes were Xed out, and someone had drawn a slimy booger hanging from his nose. Ew. Gross. But also: unexpected and intriguing!

For weeks I scoured my brain, asking myself over and over who was this mysterious owner of the enormous wiggly peen? Am I supposed to know him? Who defaced his image? What was the significance of the book in which it was tucked? Why had someone mailed this to me in the first place? I had so many questions! The next month my sister telephoned me and asked if I’d gotten the gift she had sent.

Apparently, she shared, while laughing so hard she could barely breathe, she’d found the book at a used bookstore. When she plucked it from the shelf, the photo tumbled out, and in retrieving it from the floor and taking a closer look, she realized that, with a few modifications, she had the perfect anonymous house-warming gift to send me. She was right. It was weird and dumb and perfect, and to this day we giggle about it. We still don’t know who the naked man is, but we will no doubt be mocking him until we are well in our dotage.

What do Marcel Dzama‘s illustrations have in common with my ludicrous sister and the mysterious dick pic? Well, I’ll get to that.

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Marcel Dzama’s works, reminiscent of small, intimate illustrations from vintage story books, are rendered in graphite, pen and ink, watercolor, and root beer wash (a solution he discovered by accident and which can make his drawings look as if they are made in blood). Equal parts macabre and mischievous, frightening and fanciful, these delicately wrought, hybrid characters in the midst of their bizarre and disturbing narratives, present a folksy appearance with an surrealist twist and are underscored by a dark, gallows humor.

Marcel Dzama

Receiving his BFA from the University of Manitoba in 1997, Dzama actively creates across mediums, being a prolific drawer, as well as filmmaker, installation and sculpture artist, musician, costume designer. One might recognize his artwork from the creative output of musicians such as Beck or They Might Be Giants and his darkly whimsical works are highly sought after by Hollywood celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Jim Carey.

Do I care about any of that when my gaze falls upon his flacid, feeble aliens and pretentious tree people and the subversive violence committed by a parade of young women shooting arrows, strangling bats, and threatening their sistren with slingshots? Not particularly.

Dzama’s accolades and renown and star-studded endorsements have nothing to do with why I am drawn to strange pageantry of his work. Cartoonish, nightmarish, and utterly enigmatic, I trace the simple lines of his childish faces with my finger, lose myself in the cloudy shades of his muted color palette, and wonder endlessly about all of it.  One reviewer of Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord, writes that Dzama’s works are a “…a fun-house hell where sinners are condemned to an eternity of enigma.”  It is this enigmatic quality to the work that compels me to continue staring, despite the unknowing. To seek out more of his wonderfully peculiar art. And of course…to share the mystery.

One might imagine finding a book of these illustrations in a cardboard box of disorganized children’s toys at your neighbor’s garage sale on a cloudy autumn day. Struck at first by the whimsy of these drawings, you will thumb through the pages, your nostalgia slowly turning to puzzlement. Something seems really off here. Just…not quite right. Kinda fucked up, actually–and you’d love a second opinion.

And you know what? It’s your turn to play anonymous benefactor and you’ve got just the sibling to send it to.

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Marcel Dzama Untitled 2003

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