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A Little Cold Blood: or Was That Root Beer?
A conversation between Marcel Dzama and Cheryl Kaplan

Over the past several years, the Canadian Marcel Dzama has advanced from an artist’s artist to an international art star. His subtle drawings, reminiscent of illustrations in Victorian books, explode with black humor; in them, the self-declared pacifist maps out his fantastic and sometimes cruel world. Cheryl Kaplan followed the white rabbit in Dzama’s New York studio and spoke to the artist and filmmaker about his own peculiar wonderland.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, no date
Deutsche Bank Collection

It’s the worst rain New York’s seen in a long time, but Marcel Dzama is smiling. It’s hard to imagine him upset at anything – he could be Frodo in Lord of the Rings, and his studio feels just as enchanted as J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy.

Marcel Dzama in his New York studio
Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan.
©Copyright 2006 Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

He’s been here since his arrival from Canada a little over a year ago. There are still bins of children’s clothes and related furniture standing around. Dzama’s shelves are filled with his costumes, familiar to those who’ve seen his films recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The artist at work
Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan.
©Copyright 2006 Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

Dzama’s collaborated with Spike Jonze, but is equally known for founding the Royal Art Lodge in 1996 and the Royal Family, a kind of family-based trunk show that started in Winnipeg. The conceit gained them international attention, but it’s Dzama’s drawings that have really distinguished him. Drawn with a root beer solution, the work has the pleasant appearance of a storybook tale and the disturbing reality of Edgar Allan Poe or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

A new drawing in Dzama's studio
Foto: Courtesy Cheryl Kaplan.© Copyright 2006 Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

There’s also a profound sense of folly and a constant mix-up not unlike Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Amputations, blood baths, and dancing bears form an archaic plot occasionally punctuated by literary figures like James Joyce, who’s recently become a sub-character in Dzama’s universe.

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, no date
Deutsche Bank Collection

CHERYL KAPLAN: When the public sees illustration-based art, especially with multiple characters, the discussion heads towards alternative realities. How do you get around this?

MARCEL DZAMA: I don’t know if I do.

What’s your alternative reality?

I have an escape place.

Do you meet your characters there?

They just appear, develop on the page. I draw and also make them in 3D. I collect objects from conversations, newspapers, books, and films; I keep a sketchbook. When the war was happening, I drew soldiers with machine guns and added a loose narrative.

You had your own troops.

I was gathering my army. Originally, the bats in the drawings were on a flag representing a fascist regime infiltrating a world.

Marcel Dzama, Training Film, 2005
Courtesy David Zwirner, New York

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