In New Prints, Marcel Dzama Stages an Allegorical Dance with Death

Drawing the curtains to Marcel Dzama’s imagined theatre, where paper is the stage for a dark and fantastical universe, one finds avant-garde dancers, costumed performers, and gothic fables. The Canadian’s current shows of prints at Crown Point Press, “The Fallen Fables,” pays testament not only to his refined hand in drawing and etching, with three new aquatints and a portfolio of twelve prints, but also to Dzama’s skill as a filmmaker; included are three of his past absurdist films—including the 35-minute silent Une Danse des Bouffons (2013), starring Kim Gordon and with a haunting soundtrack by Arcade Fire—which bring his allegorical dance with death to the realm of moving image. 

The influence of costume and stage design on the colored etchings Our Daughter’s Dance With Wisdom and Here’s A Fine Revolution (both 2015) is clear and not incidental: in early 2016, Dzama’s costumes will take to the stage with the New York City Ballet for a production based on a Hans Christian Anderson story. Specifically, these polka dotted outfits refer to Relâche, a 1924 Dadaist ballet by the French artist Francis Picabia. These works give a sense of how integral the history of the avant-gardes is for Dzama. The first print of “The Fallen Fables” portfolio, for example, scratchily outlines the naked body from Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (1946–66), not to mention the Duchamp-influenced romantic storyline of Une Danse. Additionally, hints of Joseph Beuys’s 1974 performance piece with a coyote can be seen in several of the prints, evidenced through a small wolf.  

The gothic style of “The Fallen Fables” etchings recalls that of Gustav Doré’s 19th-century esoteric engravings, while phrases from Goya’s Disasters of War (1810–1820) are inscribed in a cursive hand. The polka-dotted performers pop-up again in this black-and-white portfolio, which presents a coherent theatrical world where hooded dancers side-kick with canes, and a black-masked “beauty” is placed alongside a bear-like “beast.” These figures recall the choreographed moves and clothing of the dancers of Dzama’s film work, only here put to paper.

Dzama goes so far as to cast himself within the allegories of his creation, and even describes his materials in the dark terms of his subjects. He told Crown Point Press founder Kathan Brown while he worked, “The monster is in the service of the white knight… he paints acid onto the plate to bite the shadows into it.”  This exhibition reaps the rewards of a practice propelled by drama and frequented by the souls of artists long sent to their graves.


Hannah Gregory

Marcel Dzama: The Fallen Fables” is on view at Crown Print Press, New York, Nov. 4, 2015 – Jan. 2, 2016, with a talk by the artist on Dec. 15th.


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