When I first saw Ask the Dust, a chaotic exhibit at The Drawing Center in 2003 of the work of the Royal Art Lodge, a loose collective based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I was by turns exhilarated, amused, and ambivalent. Here was a group of young artists making heaps of art of every conceivable kind—collaborative drawings, paintings, sculptures, videos, performances, and even music—not in an expensive loft in New York or Los Angeles, but in what might appear to Americans to be the cultural isolation of the windswept Canadian prairies. What’s more, they seemed to be making art, much of it unsigned, much of it disposable (Ask the Dust opened with the ritual destruction of what Royal Art Lodge members deemed unsuccessful drawings), for all the right reasons: compulsion, loneliness, depression, boredom, lust, anger, entertainment. The Royal Art Lodge’s quirky, lyrical thrift store aesthetic is hip and nerdy and seems like the expression of an authentic regional sensibility: for New Yorkers unaware of the fact that Winnipeg has a well developed art scene, with galleries like PlugIn and magazines like BorderCrossings, these artists seemed positively exotic. The question that remained, however, was whether the art in Ask the Dust was capable of evolving into something deeper and more mature. The current solo exhibitions by Marcel Dzama at David Zwirner and Jon Pylypchuk at Friedrich Petzel, both founding members of the Royal Art Lodge, make it clear that the answer is a resounding yes. Dzama’s The Course of Human History Personified and Pylypchuk’s I have thought deep into this trouble are both stunning and necessary shows.
Marcel Dzama made his reputation with oddball, vaguely perverted illustrations which smelled nostalgically of the root beer he used to give his drawings their signature, ugly brown. Dzama’s early drawings have a compellingly retro, insular, even juvenile quality about them—they often look like the goofy and violent fantasies of an alienated teenager—and they hardly prepare one for the more encompassing and weirdly apocalyptic tone of the work currently at David Zwirner. In an untitled ink and watercolor from 2005, for instance, there are truncated figures strumming guitars, Elk horns with human heads stuck onto them, knife-wielding women holding heads spurting blood, and cowboys sucking each other’s cocks. “Bloomsday” (2005) has James Joyce’s head floating at its center and around it is a macabre dance of walking trees with bloody knives hanging from their branches and a ring of molten white skeletons. Bodies dangle from flying bats; half-horse, half-men gallop, raising sinister red banners. The title of the drawing refers to the day on which the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place, and it also suggests “doomsday” and an unleashing of savage, mythic, anarchic violence. Dzama’s drawings often have a comic book feel, but these larger pieces resemble Henry Darger’s eschatological apocalypse (think of his huge watercolors of the hanging and disembowelment of naked, prepubescent little girls with their inexplicable little penises), but also the cool brutality of the paintings of Northern Renaissance masters like Hieronymus Bosch and Lucas Cranach. In other, smaller sketches, the civil war continues. In one, a coffin draped with an American flag is carried by soldiers with animal heads, atop of which a naked woman holds up a man donning a goofy mask and a sword—a tribute, not to liberty, but to violence and death. All around are dancing trees from which baby elephants and pigs hang.
The drawings in The Course of Human History Personified become increasingly congested, grim, and ruthless as the show progresses, and the viewer becomes less and less at ease with the humor in Dzama’s perverted rendition of the tragicomedy of history; or perhaps one should say “the nightmare of history,” to use James Joyce’s phrase. In fact, there is no history at all, just random carnage, rape, and bestiality under flying red banners, as though it were all part of some weird, nihilistic crusade. In the harrowing “World Gone Wrong” (2005), swarms of birds and bats rise up through trees that evoke the trees of life, hanged men and severed heads and arms at their base. In the dream-like “Vagabonds and Blood from the Earth” (2005), women sit on tree tops beside bright red birds, I.V. tubes draining blood from the branches into glasses and into the gaping, thirsty mouths of men casually strumming guitars. The women of “Let us Not Compare Mythologies” (2005) sit blithely smoking on tree tops, while below an assortment of goons waive red banners and crunch heads beneath their boots, James Joyce’s head reappearing—a spectral blue—hovering.
The big, blue, emblematic head of James Joyce presides as a kind of demonic angel over The Course of Human History Personified’s largest and most magisterial drawing, “Neptune” (2005). A red clipper plows through roiling blue waves, its masts transforming into flowering vines that twist into nooses from which bodies hang, an evocation of paradise turning against itself. Dzama’s fascination with James Joyce seems to come from Joyce’s sense of human life and history as governed by the patterns of myth, and the ship in “Neptune” alludes to the ghost ship of Odysseus that haunts Ulysses. But whereas Joyce’s vision is full of aching humanity embodied in the character of Leopold Bloom—after all, Ulysses is in the end a book about exile, longing, and love—Dzama’s is bleak, mocking, circular, violent, and claustrophobic, without so much as a glimmer of redemption. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of this ambitious exhibit, yet it is also sadly apt—who can pretend that the unrelentingly broadcast conflict and violence and corruption of our moment in the nightmare of history have anything like a greater meaning?
Whereas The Course of Human History Personified pursues a vast theme, Jon Pylypchuk’s I have thought deep into this trouble, while sharing Dzama’s wicked ironies and flair for the grotesque, comes directly out of the Royal Art Lodge’s scrappy collage aesthetic, intimate and raunchily sensuous. Pylypchuk abandoned his native Winnipeg to get his M.F.A. at U.C.L.A. and now lives in Los Angeles, and his work suggests the influence of Paul McCarthy. Pylypchuk’s small mixed media works on paper, which are both creepy and disarming, get their titles from scribbled text ballooning out from the fuzzy beasts that populate them. In “take it easy creeper” (2005), there are weird, furry rodent-like animals and stick trees, in “at this point I am barely keeping it together” (2005) there is a big, globby head with glue spilling out of it, and in “just watching the world go down, got money fuckface” (2005) there is a sticky glue landscape covered with burn marks and a face made from a piece of sponge at the bottom. These pieces are haphazard and poignant, yet they also have a curiously tragic quality—the creatures are quivering, barely alive, pieced together from stray scraps, set in despoiled landscapes, and they speak with a nasty sarcasm. “Why are you trying to ply me with such shit,” one quips. “A whole box of cigarettes and no mouth to smoke with,” says another.
The core of I have thought deep into this trouble, however, rests in a series of sculptures and larger mixed media works on panel. “I’ll make a home from your trouble” (2005), for instance, has a mangy half wolf, half man with spindly legs and big glowering eyes tilted over a shit-colored mound inside of which is a little room with a sponge creature lounging on a bed reading a book entitled The World. In “I will stop fighting you when death stops fucking with me” (2005), wooly creatures with resin tears oozing from their eyes face off in a boxing ring, the referee to one side a grave digger. Pylypchuk’s creatures have a ravaged, compromised animality that, rather than being menacing, is confused and even pathetic, yet they also have a desperate and comic will to survive. If the governing spirit of The Course of Human History Personified is James Joyce, that of I have thought deep into this trouble is Samuel Beckett.
The figures in Pylypchuk’s work often seem to be turning themselves inside out with a propulsive, infantile violence; they are crippled by a wild, directionless internal rage that is constantly exploding. And while the messy rituals in Paul McCarthy’s work are, like those of the Vienna Actionists, meant to be expiatory and cathartic, Pylypchuk’s work offers no such hope, except perhaps grim, sardonic laughter. In “I will blow fire on all the oceans of the world” (2005), a stick figure pasted onto a thick, resiny landscape encrusted with gravel and debris vomits out a molten red substance, and in “One day I will have my life back and you will be sorry” (2005) a creamy white blob floats in a yellow sky spitting out a ribbon of red, the landscape below a gooey brown slag heap of dirt and stones. The wonderfully hideous panel that echoes the show’s title, “I have thought deep through this trouble” (2005) has an awkward beast resembling a Grizzly bear rising up on its hind legs against a poisonous, chemical green horizon. The two most troubling sculptures in I have thought deep into this trouble are “these are your last safe five seconds” (2005) and “and that’s when I gave up trying to overcome the urge to simultaneously cry and puke” (2005). In the former, a nasty, hairy beast crouches in a bathtub full of what looks like a gelatinous mix of digestive juices and blood, and in the later, one creature sits at a little table wolfing down a gruesome, intestinal looking soup into which his gouged out eye bleeds, while nearby another creature kneels over a pillar of bright orange vomit.
The characters in Samuel Beckett’s greatest novels, like Malone Dies and This Is It, despite their hilarious wretchedness, are often beset by memories of a different world, a different life—that, and their self-deprecating humor, is what gives them their humanity. Pylypchuk’s characters are lost, trapped, fragmented, funny, and despairing, but they also have an uncanny and heartbreaking warmth, perhaps because of the homely materials from which they are cobbled together: cloth, fur, sponges, wood glue. Dzama’s best recent work, by contrast, is more coldly apocalyptic, its deadpan ironies and sly allusions too savage to be wholly funny. Existentialism, and “absurdist” fiction and theater, gained popularity in the 1950s because of a sense of the helplessness and powerlessness of individuals in the face of the failure of utopian political visions, rampant capitalism, and divided superpowers with their arsenals of very real weapons of mass destruction. In many ways, the situation now is worse, and far more incoherent. Dzama’s heraldic orgies of massacre and the angst that is ripping Pylypchuk’s figures apart seems absurd and without reason. Perhaps that is because we can’t formulate such reasons any longer. James Joyce’s head gazing out from Dzama’s drawings, is an icon of Modernism, yes, but it also, like the massive busts of Lenin torn down after the fall of Communism, a monument to a European sensibility of a different century—not the long, eerie view across the prairies from twenty-first century Winnipeg.