marcel dzama on making art and listening to mexican garage bands with raymond pettibon
Before his new collaborative show with the punk rock icon opens at David Zwirner’s London outpost, Dzama reveals how the expansive pieces came together, and which artworks are in his bathroom.
Though Raymond Pettibon's Black Flag and SST Records illustrations had made him a punk legend by the early 80s, artist Marcel Dzama didn't discover Pettibon's work until 1990, when he bought a copy of Sonic Youth's seminal album Goo. Dzama was compelled by the record's iconic cover — a black and white drawing based on a paparazzi photo taken during the Moors murder trial — and by Pettibon's style. "I was a fan of early Golden Age comic illustrations from the 30s and 40s. It kind of reminded me of that feel, but a lot more poetic," Dzama explained over the phone from the back of a cab one afternoon. When Dzama moved to New York from his native Winnipeg in 2004, he stopped by one of Pettibon's shows at David Zwirner, the gallery which represents them both. Instantly, they hit it off. The artists hosted play dates for their young sons, and doodled on napkins at art world dinner parties when they got bored. At one such meal in London, Dzama and Pettibon started drawing on the tablecloth. "It was a huge collaboration with Chris Ofili, Jockum Nordström, I think even Luc Tuymans did some doodles on it too," Marcel says. "David wanted to keep the cloth, and the restaurant owner held it for ransom for a little bit!"
Those dinner table doodles have since evolved into a fertile collaborative relationship between the two artists, which spans three limited-edition zines and, as of next Wednesday, two gallery shows. Let us compare mythologies, which opens at Zwirner's London outpost on October 5, collects over 40 of the pair's joint collaborative works, which incorporate drawing, painting, and collage techniques. Many were made at Zwirner's gallery-cum-garage space in Chelsea, where the artists set up a studio for one sweltering summer month. Perhaps it was listening to "apocalyptic" Neil Young in the thick of a stifling New York heatwave that caused the pair to produce such detailed, darkly humorous, and imaginative works — and to consider themes like superheroes, global warming, and police violence. Before the show opens, we spoke with Dzama to learn more about it.
Let's talk about some of the common elements in these widely-varying pieces: early comic book characters and Dadaist symbols. What sorts of visual motifs did you and Raymond work with?
Raymond and I both have kids the same age, and we've done some get togethers with our boys. They're both into superheroes, so it's something we brought more to this show; there's a heavy Batman theme. My son is a big Batman fan right now, and I was raised on re-runs of the 1960s Batman. Raymond's been working on a script for a Batman movie for, like, 30 years, and he gave it to me to read for a few months. It's really interesting, sort of like superheroes in the art world. We've been talking about collaborating on it in some way. Maybe it'll be the next show we do. We were also both influenced by poetry this time around; I was reading a lot of Lorca and I noticed he was reading a little bit of Rimbaud. The election fell into it, too. We did a few anti-Trump pieces, and things making fun of Fox News. David Zwirner was nice enough to lend us their gallery space that's also a garage; we were able to use it as a studio for a whole month. It was so hot in New York this summer, so there's a large drawing that's shaped a bit by apocalyptic global warming. There were all these horrendous shootings of unarmed black men happening around the same time, too, but I don't think we finished the pieces in time to include them in this show.
I noticed a few cops in there, which made me think of Raymond's drawings for Black Flag back in the 80s. Then I started seeing more things that have appeared in your work repeatedly: Raymond's waves, your costumed performers and dancers. It's such a cool collaboration because these ideas feel familiar, but interpreted in such a new way.
It's funny — none of them made the book because I did them after — but Raymond gave me all these half-done comics that he'd made in the late 70s and early 80s. Some of the panels had the writing on the bottom, but no image. Those were really fun to finish up and make into a story. And the ones from the 70s, he doesn't even really draw that way anymore. In some ways, I felt like I was destroying history when he gave them to me!
Collaboration is a pretty major aspect of your work in general. Une Danse des Bouffons involved so many talented people like Kim Gordon, as did The Most Incredible Thing. Why is collaboration important to you?
I've just always found there's something much more exciting about the collaboration than just going to work in your studio. In art school, I was lucky enough to be involved with a group called the Royal Art Lodge. We got together every Sunday and Wednesday to collaborate. It's much more fun putting together a collaborative show with Raymond than a solo one of my own. The conversations are so interesting, so rich with musical history.
What kind of music were you listening to in the Zwirner garage?
I was in Guadalajara a while ago, and I collected all these old 45s of garage bands from the 60s doing covers of Rolling Stones and Beatles songs. We were listening to a lot of that, and I played Neil Young's On the Beach and Tonight's the Night for the apocalyptic feel. Also some Leonard Cohen, I had all of his albums on the shuffle. That's how we got the name of the show; his first published book of poetry was called Let Us Compare Mythologies.
When I saw ghosts in these pieces, I was reminded that I once used Spike Jonze's bathroom and noticed one of your ghost pictures on the wall. Do you have any artworks in your bathroom?
I do, actually! This one German artist got rid of everything he owned and photographed it all; I have a photograph of a statue of this girl crouching over a broom. I made some ceramic bats in Guadalajara, so they're hanging in there. And in my lower bathroom, there's a photo of Marcel Duchamp sitting at a Max Ernst chess set and smoking a cigar. That's nice that Spike put that in there. One of my wife's drawings I think is in that same bathroom! I don't know if you saw it. Well, I guess the people who'd look at it are probably men; it's right above the toilet.
Do you and Raymond plan to continue your collaboration in the future?
If we do happen to be able to scramble together that Batman film, we'll probably do drawings based on it. But either way, I'm sure we'll continue to do what naturally progresses.
'Let us compare mythologies' is on view at David Zwirner London from October 5 - November 12, 2016. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
The land of the bat, 2016. Pencil, ink, watercolor, acrylic, and collage on wallpaper. 41 1/8 x 43 1/2 inches (104.5 x 110.5 cm). Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London