A detail from 'Grand presentiments of what must come' by Marcel Dzama
A detail from 'Grand presentiments of what must come', 2012; ink, watercolour and graphite on piano scrolls, created by Dzama to welcome his son, Willem © Marcel Dzama

The international success of the Canadian-born artist Marcel Dzama belies the idea that contemporary art must involve tricky new media or radically conceptual thought. His work is figurative, his principal medium is pen-and-ink (or pen and diluted root-beer concentrate, a solution he discovered by accident and which can make his drawings look as if they are made in blood), and in his early days, at least, he wouldn’t sign his work but saw it as a collaborative effort by himself and a few friends. After a group exhibition in Los Angeles, his drawings were shown at the Berlin Art Fair, where they attracted the New York gallery owner David Zwirner, who took on Dzama and exhibited 300 drawings at his Soho gallery in the spring of 1998. Dzama was 23.

Artist Marcel Dzama attends the new MoMA and P.S.1 program "Pop Rally" that premieres his films in New York City on April 22 2006
Marcel Dzama at a recent MoMA event in New York © Getty Images

Six years later he moved to Manhattan, initially using the kitchen of Zwirner’s Soho loft as a studio. Since then, his drawings have been translated into all kinds of media, from Joseph Cornell-inspired dioramas, to ceramic sculptures, to collages and paintings, to scripted films. He enjoys collaborations, notably with Dave Eggers at McSweeney’s (Eggers’ quarterly literary journal). He has also worked on music videos – his masked characters appeared in Bob Dylan’s video for “When the Deal Goes Down”, and this year he made a new film for the Toronto film festival, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth as the lead.

The influences in his work are many, from Inuit art, which he studied at college in Winnipeg, to comic-books and cartoons, to Bosch, Goya and Duchamp, Russian constructivism, surrealism and images from the Iraq war. But all this is transmuted into a personal iconography and a cast of characters accurately defined by one of the very first reviewers of his work, David Pagel in the Los Angeles Times, as “humanoids running amok”.

Since then, the cast has changed and grown. “I feel that for each show I’ve been doing there’s a character that dominates,” Dzama explained on the phone from Brooklyn. “Then in the next show it plays a smaller part, and then in the next it has a sort of cameo piece. So they all have their moment.” A recent major addition to the cast list has been his son Willem, for whose arrival he created a celebratory, if sinister, masterpiece (with a reference to Goya’s “The Disasters of War”) that is included as a poster-sized reproduction at the back of his new book. “Grand presentiments of what must come” (2012) shows an egg-headed character in what might well be a Saxon helmet descending from Blakean clouds towards a world of variously masked, bear-headed, flag-waving, bare-breasted, wizard-hatted, pierrot-costumed, sword-wielding welcomers.

“Before the birth and after, I was kind of obsessed with the body in general, the whole birthing process,” Dzama said. “It came out in a lot of the drawings. In the one on the poster (illustrated on the previous page), the central character is, like, a foetus-headed woman … I was thinking that all this craziness was coming to an end and also [that] it was some kind of apocalyptic beginning. It felt like it was so important I had to do something. I almost felt like, if this was my last drawing, then …”

Happily, it wasn’t. “I find that I’m constantly drawing,” he admits. “Even when I’m on holidays, or when the baby’s sleeping, I’ll just start doing some automatic drawing, something like that, and then it will turn into a piece, even though I thought I was just doodling.”

‘Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord’, with texts by Raymond Pettibon and Bradley Bailey, an interview with Spike Jonze and stories by Dave Eggers, is published by Abrams on December 1, £37.50

Three works by Marcel Dzama. Left: 'The minotaur', plaster sculpture, 2008. Centre: a video still of The Queen from the film 'A Game of Chess', 2011. Right: 'Hallowe’en party with catperson and lady', diorama made from wood, glass, cardboard, collage, watercolour and ink, 2006
Left: 'The minotaur', plaster sculpture, 2008. Centre: a video still of The Queen from the film 'A Game of Chess', 2011. Right: 'Hallowe’en party with catperson and lady', diorama made from wood, glass, cardboard, collage, watercolour and ink, 2006 © David Zwirner/Marcel Dzama


Let us pray

A short story by Dave Eggers

 'The banks of the Red River/A veritable army of underdogs', ink, watercolour and graphite on paper, 2008 by Marcel Dzama
'The banks of the Red River/A veritable army of underdogs', ink, watercolour and graphite on paper, 2008 © Marcel Dzama

The problem was the volume. There were too many of them. For the men of khaki, shooting things from the sky was one of life’s great joys, and for years they had enjoyed it without much variation. They would look for ducks, and pheasants, the occasional goose, and always the task presented some difficulty: there was a vast white sky, and a few blotches – the birds, asking to be shot – moving erratically from here to there. Shooting one of those blotches was not easy, and it felt very good when they aimed their buckshot correctly and knocked the blotches from the air.

But then one day there were more. There were so many. There were brown birds, crows probably, and there were bats, too many to count. The men of khaki didn’t know what to do. Was it fair to shoot these things when they were so plentiful, when nearly any vertical shot struck some creature? The men thought about it, for many seconds, before deciding it was OK to shoot these more plentiful things from the sky. And though the new plenty was strange, the men of khaki were having a grand old time of it, shooting, reloading, shooting some more. The bats and crows were dropping like hail.

Then it got stranger. There were flowers, wonderful red lotuses, flitting across the sky. But from where? It did not matter. They could be shot, too, the men figured, and the men did an expert job of stopping their arcs and bringing them earthward.

Then came the dogs. And the horses. And when the giant disembodied head of a cat appeared, the men of khaki briefly paused, and wondered if all this was a sign of some kind. Perhaps, because these animals, many of which had never flown before in all known history, were now airborne, the men should notify someone, scientists or government officials.

It seemed that something should be done. Perhaps those representing God on Earth would like to know? Did this indicate the End of Days or, in other faiths, some equivalent apocalypse?

The men agreed that it would be difficult not to interpret this as a sign that something was very wrong. But it was equally difficult to let so many ripe targets go unaddressed. So the men lifted their rifles and had a day of it.

© 2013 Dave Eggers

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