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Tuesday 11.07.06

« Don't Blink | Main | Ty Ennis at NAAU »

Election day thoughts on drawing in the aughts

Marcel Dzama, Untitled, 2003
courtesy of David Zwirner

One cold and snowy Canadian night, a young artist named Marcel Dzama was setting his wild imaginings to paper at his grandmother's kitchen table with such enthusiasm that he overturned a nearby bottle of root beer base. As the sweet liquid saturated his work, Dzama was struck by his own serendipity. Here was the drawings' key ingredient: something to make his grizzlies' fur a milk chocolate brown and his amputees' crutches an almond tan, to perfectly offset his customary palette of military greens and wan fleshtones. Like the butterfly of chaos theory, whose flapping wings set off a chain reaction that culminates in a tornado, Dzama's clumsy gesture gave birth to the quaint drawing craze.

Dzama's impact on not only the work of art students, but the international art market as well, can be partly attributed to a phenomenon that has become as ubiquitous as the work of the Dzamaisti (his followers) while also becoming that work's chief disseminator: the art fair. A few years after Dzama joined the stable of New York powerhouse David Zwirner in 1998, ersatz Dzamas flooded temporary art marketplaces worldwide. Lightweight, travel-ready, inexpensive to frame--or better yet, not frame--pen and ink (or whatever) drawings share an affinity with paper currency. Moreover, they're frequently quite pretty.

Its been nearly a century since the other Marcel exhibited a urinal as sculpture and the question "what it art?" has long since become tiresome. Anything can be art--lights turning on and off, grocery receipts, merda d' artista--anything except art's country cousin--illustration. But, with the success of Dzama and his Royal Art Lodge compatriots, neatly outlined, colorblocked forms and figures have swarmed gallery walls in numbers unequaled since the heyday of Pop Art.

Pop Art challenged the traditional content of high art, but still relied on the authority of the gallery to transform an image's aura into that of objet d'art. That alchemy was the essence of the movement. Roy Lichtenstein didn't pave the way for comic or commercial illustrators to receive greater acclaim for their work. If anything, his breezy appropriation of their output implied a lack of respect for their accomplishments. Warhol's relationship to illustration was paradoxical.

Dzama's impact has been quite different. His success has carved out a niche for art that flirts with the economic politics, and aesthetic boundaries, of two once-distinct markets. The breed of artist whose work can serve as both "fine art" and as promotional material had been most visibly represented in the official art world by oddball Raymond Pettibon. That Pettibon's aesthetic moved easily from band flyers papering the punk clubs of the L.A. to white walls of Chelsea initially seemed a fluke of nature, rather than a selected mutation. Takashi Murakami and Ryan McGinness have enacted parallel complications of the design/art divide, but their work has a significantly cooler emotional temperature than that of Dzama and Pettibon. (The defining moment of McGinness's lecture at PICA was when he answered an audience member's question with "Art is a commodity; design is a service." while the defining moment of Pettibon's PICA lecture was probably when he was overcome by the associations brought up by one of his own drawings and started quietly weeping.)

Marcel Dzama was in the right place at the right time with the right all-Canadian good looks to serve as the avatar of a new art paradigm. That the right place would be as out of the way as Winnipeg can be traced to the lingering influence of the last wave of barbarians to storm the artworld gates, the Outsider Artists. The key bridge figure between Outsider Art and Quaint Drawing is introspective Chicago janitor Henry Darger. While Darger is frequently assumed to have influenced the younger artist, Dzama has stated that he only became aware of Darger after developing his own signature style. Captivated by the same sweet, disingenuous magazine illustrations that served as the reclusive Darger's only art education, Dzama also appears to have been influenced by acerbic social observers Goya, Bruegel, and Grosz, as well as the 15th century's answer to Darger, Hieronymus Bosch.

Francisco Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters, 1797-99

One current school of Dzamaisti employ Dzama's sense of spatial poetics and simplified form to create works of delicate beauty whose intent is the creation of an existential mood--decorative work with soul. The artists who create it frequently work in craft or design as well and the works are very affordable by art world standards. They satisfy a desire that seems to have existed, undermet, pre-Dzama. The mass integration of illustrative drawings into the fine art market coincides with digital technological developments, which in their own small, incremental way, echo the paradigmatic shifts initiated by the invention of the camera. The work of the hand is being used less frequently in popular advertising, so the old distinction between "mechanical" handwork and "artistic" handwork has largely been replaced by a distinction between digital work and handwork, period.

Another school of Dzamaisti are primarily inspired by Dzama's condensed narrative force, his manipulation of the convention of the gag, to darkly comic effect. Dzama is by no means the first arist to mine this territory, and his artworld success runs parallel to the relative obscurity of some of his closest artistic colleagues.

Chris Ware's inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial was looked upon by many as a good omen, but despite making a strong bid for acceptance with the recent traveling exhibition, Masters of American Comics, graphic novelists continue to be marginalized. Dan Clowes grumbles loudly about this in his graphic and film work (somewhat ironically--his Hollywood ventures have made him the only household name of the bunch, Dzama included.) Clowes, Ware, Adrian Tomine, and several other graphic novelists are doing some of the most intelligent and affecting visual work of the present moment. Their exclusion from the art world proper seems more a consequence of two contrasting philosophies--the Masonic elitism of the blue chip art world vs. the neurasthenic candor of the comic world's reigning kings--than an issue of quality. By making their work available, undiminished, through mass reproduction, comic artists effectively disengage themselves from the value system of the fine art world.

The popularity of illustration-based artwork reminds us that figurative art satisfies a basic human need--to see the experience of being human interpreted imaginatively, but with immediacy. Before the invention of the camera negated painting's primary responsibility of creating a social record, popular audiences had an emotional, opinionated relationship to painting. Television--having replaced painting as the primary way that most Americans (and Canadians) view creative visual depictions of the human condition--may hold the greatest potential for the development of art that reaches a wide enough audience to directly affect society as a whole.The Simpsons is one of the few television shows of the past few decades that has contained the depth and breadth of vision that marks a product of human endeavor as art. While the show's writing deserves more accolades than the animation, it is the mutability of the characters bodies and environment that gave the writers such a wide playing field in which to experiment. Hoewever, television can't recreate the visceral satisfaction of relating to a physical object in real space, even a flat, untouchable object.

While endless waves of illustrative drawing have begun to bore art audiences in search of fresh ideas, they may signal a renewed relationship between artists and a general public that is simultaneously tiring of an ever-more-soulless popular culture. In times of political unrest (like now), artists tend to move away from purely formal concerns toward a more figurative, explicitly communicative art. Popular visual expressions of dissent are important, but devil-horned Dick Cheney mugs have become as tiresome as creepily self-aware bears. Sometimes it takes the type of individual who can be totally preoccupied by rearranging large sheets of metal to create a moving portrait of America's embattled position.

Richard Serra, Stop Bush, 2004

Posted by Jessica Bromer on November 07, 2006 at 12:18 | Comments (4)


I love Dzama and Pettibon, can't stand the clones.

The clones affectation of self-consciousness simply isnt enough to legitimize this glut... although it does make nice cover art for the Stranger/Mercury.

Interesting how Dzama's aesthetic was the elephant in the room at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. The Canadianification of the art world... eventhough I don't dig a lot of this work the Royal Art Lodge deserves a lot of respect. If you were buying Dazma's from Liz Leach and Greg Kucera 6 years ago you might have made a pretty good choice.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 7, 2006 12:44 PM

The Royal Art Lodge and their collective shows deserve the initial kudos for bringing Dzamaisti (ha!) to the world. There is a fine line between illustrative work that "works" like Dzama's (who I love, but simultaneously am tired of, and yet want to see more), and "smacks of cliched gag/idealism" illustrative works with angry young man messages that seem to be everywhere. Chris Ware (and Marjane Satrapi) are like a breath of fresh air when confronted with those, but for whatever reason the art and comic world haven't quite crossed over that sequential static boundary, is there something scary to the artworld about mass consumable graphic novels? Hmm.,. "The work of the hand is being used less frequently in popular advertising, so the old distinction between "mechanical" handwork and "artistic" handwork has largely been replaced by a distinction between digital work and handwork, period." I would like to see you expand on this thought, because i'm not at all sure I agree with this statement. A lot of digital work starts out as handwork, what's the boundary? It's being used less, I agree, but it's popularity comes and goes in waves. And finally, speaking of "explicitely communicative" politically motivated artwork - talk about an "ever-more-soulless popular culture"... has popular culture become so brain-damaged that we can only respond to angry didacticism?

Posted by: squidtronic [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 7, 2006 01:59 PM

I see the Serra not as angry didacticism, but as an attempt to channel the experience of victimhood through a crudeness that speaks of desperation--a plea rather than a command. His raw form reworks the degredation of being made anonymous into an expression of the universal experience of suffering. It commands empathy more than obedience... I've seen less artistic renderings of this figure that reduce it to an icon, a symbol onto which the viewer can project political philosopy. Serra gets to the heart of the matter. I say it's art, not just propaganda (while acknowledging that anyone arguing the opposite has a lot of ammo).

As for digital/hand issue...maybe I'll have time to tackle that tomorrow. Any pro designers/illustrators want to weigh in?

Posted by: Jessica Bromer [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 7, 2006 04:07 PM

Squid T.,

I tried to couch that idea in a lot of "less" and "largely" but perhaps I should also have said "is being replaced" or "looks as though it is going to be replaced." The parts of this essay where I attempt to make sense of the zeitgeist are definitely the most conjectural.

Essentially, wherever you find a sweeping artistic trend, there often emerges a pattern: A promoter, a star, and an underlying cultural restlessness. For example: Critic John Ruskin + Charismatic artist/ringleader William Morris + (The Industrial Revolution x widespread dissatisfaction with "alienated labor" and shoddy goods x craftspeople no longer needing to supply a huge demand and therefore specializing and experimenting leading their work to become more idiosyncratic and thus recognizably artistic) + the notion of a utopic community as the defining ideal of the age = The Arts and Crafts Movement

So with Quaint Drawing there's ((Gallerists David Zwirner + Richard Heller--the Royal Art Lodge deserves respect and some credit (roughly akin to the importance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the above example) but they might well have remained in semi-obscurity had their crew not included the brilliant Dzama)) + Dzama and his prodigious talent/prodigious output + a healthy market for mid-priced work and a broader customer base thanks to the popularization of the art fair x (y) = Quaint Drawing Craze. So what is (y)?

It seems like more and more of what surrounds us (not around Portland, but more or less anywhere directly adjacent to a highway or in any supermarket without an organic section) appears to have originated somewhere in Adobe Creative Suite, rather than at a table with foamcore, pencils, paste, exacto knives, etc. Clients in search of high-end design can afford to take the gambit of paying a designer well enough that he/she can take the time to experiment, draw, build, etc. in order to come up with something fresh and idiosyncratic. The larger pool of low-end designers have to watch the clock more carefully, and working on a computer is more efficient, as is copying someone else's example. At this point it's not difficult to make something on a computer that, when reproduced, looks like it could have been drawn by hand. Whereas not so long ago, "by hand" was the only way to make much of what is now created using computers. Coincidentally (or not???) in art we've begun to see a lot of drawing and surreal model-making with foam, tacks, etc. Trends do come and go, but this technology is so young and so fast-moving that it's hard to know how different design will look after the computer is a historically established creative tool.

The skill of drawing as part of a standard upper-class education, popular pastime, and widely used means of recording the appearance of things is long past, and even the time when it was standard for art schools to turn out graduating classes of proficient draftsmen has passed. Before photography, newspapers would send sketch artists to the scenes of crimes and fires. The degree of skill required for that very practical position is now the province of a select few and that rarity may be the last step to breaking down the barrier between graphic depiction and art. Even though there are still, and always will be, illustrators who primarily create work by free-hand drawing, there are fewer people employed in purely practical drawing. Where the makers of a medical dictionary may have once employed a medical illustrator to draw an organ, they now at least have the option of creating a computer rendering, possibly choosing to do so in order to offer students a more layered image. Or, makers of bottles of lavender--scented shampoo might have at one time employed an illustrator to draw a lavender plant, but, because computers are available and have a buffet of available treatments for abstract form, now choose an abstract lavender-colored graphic instead. Art objects are monetarily valued for their aura of uniqueness (Larger print editions of equal "artistic quality" to smaller editions by the same artist being valued at a lower price per print, for example). Additionally, uselessness as anything other than art is what allows the possibility of vast fluctuations in a work's monetary value. Whereas drawing, as a service for which one can be paid, has long had a value in a practical, competitive marketplace. So the fact that fewer and fewer people use drawing by hand as a practical tool may be one of the reasons that drawing is being accepted as commensurate with painting, sculpture, the act of crawling naked through broken glass, i.e major work, rather than preparatory or minor work. By having less practical value, drawing is freer to accumulate "art value." Illustration and art will probably always have an awkward, convoluted relationship, as will art and craft, art and design, art and entertainment, art and the public, art and theory, art and criticism, art and artists, etc. but there has been a subtle shift in the balance of power over the last few years, and my best guess is that it has a little bit to do with CAD and Illustrator.

Posted by: Jessica Bromer [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2006 09:05 AM

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