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My Winnipeg

Marcel Dzama, interviewed by Leanne Shapton

Jason Schmidt; courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama in his Brooklyn studio, 2021

Jason Schmidt; courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Marcel Dzama in his Brooklyn studio, 2021

The cover for the Review’s holiday issue was hand-drawn and painted by the multimedia artist Marcel Dzama. As I wrote last year, our holiday covers tend to skew dark, favoring doom and gloom over comfort and joy. With the spirit of Krampus in mind, I thought of Marcel, whose work veers from cinematic to Edenic to apocalyptic and back. For our cover, he painted a pair of snowpeople on a sort of evening passeggiata, surrounded by owls, some hungry red birds, and a menacing cat. He titled it The sleep of reason produces snowmen. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but I love a good winter night scene, where the snow glows blue and the shadows are eerily bright.

Dzama was born in Winnipeg—a city notorious for its winters, long and snowy even for Canada—and like fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, the chilly landscapes and hearty wildlife of the northern prairies have worked their way into much of his art. As Dzama told me over e-mail this week:

Winnipeg gets a lot of winter, so I had a lot of experience making snowmen and snow forts. Growing up I saw bears, moose, beavers, and tons of other wildlife that all ended up in my drawings…. The winters in Winnipeg can last up to six months. When I go back now, I find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the snowy landscape. I think that is where I truly began my practice as an artist. I didn’t understand how much I was influenced by the landscape at the time. When I look back on my early works, I see that they are mostly very sparse, minimal backgrounds with very few characters in the forefront. I didn’t realize it, but I was drawing the prairies in winter.

Many of Dzama’s paintings, drawings, and books are peopled by anthropomorphic bats, goats, and human-animal hybrids. One of his most familiar works might be his untitled 2000 painting of a woman with a swarm of rodents for legs dueling a lizard man, which was used as the cover art for Sianne Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings. This sort of dark whimsy had some of its foundation in his childhood. “Growing up I loved the Grimm’s fairy tales and anything to do with mythology,” he told me. Together with a teenaged visit to the Winnipeg Art Gallery—“They have the largest collection of Inuit art in the world. They have a beautiful collection and I was for sure influenced by it”—this engagement with the folkloric has imprinted his paintings with the deceptively cheerful look of old children’s books, somewhere on the unsettling borderlands between human emotion and animal savagery.  

Dzama now lives in Brooklyn, where he is “surrounded by a lot of beautiful parks. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a favorite. I also like traveling short distances away from the city with my family, to Fire Island or upstate New York.” The change of scenery is perhaps reflected in his recent paintings, which are characterized by ornate backgrounds and a rich color palette. Some of this work is on view now at Child of Midnight, a solo show of Dzama’s paintings and films at David Zwirner’s London gallery. The show, which encompasses themes of climate change and the fleeting nature of time, includes tropical and oceanic seascapes populated by swimmers and royalty and masked dancers.

I asked Dzama how, aside from the change in landscape, his life in the United States may have affected his work—did the snowman couple on the Holiday Issue cover perhaps reference American Gothic?—and he explained where the title of his painting came from:

I was recently looking at the Goya print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which I think is fitting for these times. Since I live in New York, I think I am in a bit of a bubble. It’s hard not to pay attention to the news when it’s as grim as it has been. I don’t see myself as a political artist, but politics manage to creep their way in. Hopefully, it is a therapeutic purge to get it out artistically!

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