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PHI Artistes Collectionpermanente Vivien Gaumand 1 Marcel Dzama Prom Night

Marcel Dzama

Prom Night - 1997

Gouache and ink on paper
33 × 25.5 cm (approx.)
Collection of Phoebe Greenberg

Unknown (Lady with Owl) - 1997

Gouache on paper cutouts and coloured pencil on paper
30 × 23 cm (approx.)
Collection of Phoebe Greenberg

Photo: Vivien Gaumand

Edwin Janzen on Marcel Dzama

Prom Night

Marcel Dzama’s drawing Prom Night features an array of seven puppets on stick-feet, clad in red smocks, against a white background. Three are Pinocchio figures with elongated noses and another is disguised in a wrestler’s mask, while three more have animal heads: a dog and two bats.

The Pinocchios situate Dzama’s drawing in the era of George W. Bush’s administration. During that time, a great part of the artist’s work gestured at the official hypocrisy of that administration, as the lies piled higher and higher, an edifice of false pretexts for pointless Mideast wars. Similar themes and motifs appear in other works of Dzama’s as well, such as 2007’s La verdad está muerta/Room full of liars, a comparable rogues gallery of puppets.

Prom Night affords us no further guidance as to the aims and purposes of this little menagerie, but they ought to remind us of all those bought politicians and hawkish neocon officials—the Cheneys, the Boltons, and the Wolfowitzes—the kind of people the Chinese communists once referred to as the “running dogs of capitalism.” Elected or appointed to high office, they are puppets by profession, always eager to be useful to any effort that benefits the war machine and the industrialists behind it.

The title Prom Night suggests a graduation—a jubilant celebration, for the aspirant, of stepping out and taking one’s place in the world. For these puppets, beasts and liars alike, it is their moment of truth.

Unknown (Lady With Owl)

A smiling woman, sporting a dress, stockings, and a cat-burglar mask, stands in an art gallery, hands on her hips, an owl perched upon her shoulder. On black gallery walls behind her hang seven indistinct paintings, with three more piled haphazardly below. Given her mask, could this woman, the central feature of Unknown (Lady With Owl) (1997), an early work by Marcel Dzama, be an art thief? Her pose seems too easy for that. The matched colour, however—a faded burnt sienna—between the paintings and her voluminous stole suggests she might be the artist.

Throughout his works, Dzama uses masks to obscure his subjects’ characters, to constrain them from giving away too much. A similarly masked woman in an art context appears in a later Dzama piece, Adoration for thieves (2007), although there, as here, it is unclear if the appellation of thief refers to the woman.

Although depictions of artworks never became a mainstay of Dzama’s work—in contrast, say, to bears, gunmen, or disembodied heads—some do appear, usually framed, in a smattering of works. Rarer still are depictions of art spaces such as gallery interiors. One example, however, is The After Party (2012), which features women and men cavorting in a gallery chamber in various states of undress—mostly total for the women, except for their masks.

In that work, the perspective lines are conspicuously architectural, almost stern, whereas here they are more freewheeling, simply sketched, almost multidimensional. Here, we have not the “white cube” but a black one; but if this little gallery seems a little uncertain about its own geometry, the masked woman, assisted by her owl, stands with her toes placed purposefully upon a white architectural line, confidently holding down the room.

About the artist

Since rising to prominence in the late 1990s, Marcel Dzama has developed an immediately recognizable visual language that investigates human action and motivation, as well as the blurred relationship between the real and the subconscious. Drawing equally from folk vernacular as from art-historical and contemporary influences, Dzama’s work visualizes a universe of childhood fantasies and otherworldly fairy tales. Dzama was born in 1974 in Winnipeg, Canada, where he received his BFA in 1997 from the University of Manitoba.


Marcel Dzama's Prom Night and Unknown (Lady with Owl) are currently on view in Figure–Ground, a series bringing together several works from PHI's art collection that explore the figure and the complex and intimate correlation it establishes with its background.

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