Dark horse

Hannah Booth eagerly awaits illustrator Marcel Dzama’s forthcoming exhibition, a collection of intimate drawings inspired by Dante’s Inferno

Steve Martin, Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey may not be the epitome of cool, but the fact that these Hollywood A-listers are owners of work by Marcel Dzama at all says something about the pull of this 25-year-old illustrator.

Dzama is heading to the UK next week for his first UK show, probably hoping to snap up interest among our home-grown stars. Drawings for Dante, which opens on 31 October at London’s Timothy Taylor Gallery, features intimate ink drawings inspired by the dark grotesqueness of Dante’s Inferno. Why Dante? ‘I was reading it at the time,’ Dzama says.

His illustrations draw on a small colour palette of inks within thin outlines, lending the work a delicate, old-fashioned aesthetic. Fascinated by the grotesque, Dzama has previously been influenced by Grimm’s fairy tales, the 1920s and 1950s, Japanese animé and even, he says, his pet cat.

‘My work is underwhelming,’ he says modestly. ‘I try to work in smaller scale to create intimacy.’

Dzama is based in Winnipeg, Canada, where he collaborates with a group of like-minded artists, called The Royal Art Lodge, away from pressure and overt commercialism. But this existence has its drawbacks – there is only one not-for-profit gallery in Winnipeg and it gets fairly booked up, so he has been happily forced to take his work elsewhere.

The relative isolation of Winnipeg has been important as it has enabled him to develop his style before showing it anywhere. ‘I was just drawing for the fun of it,’ he says. That was until he was ‘discovered’ in 1996 by Wayne Baerwaldt, who showed his work at the Los Angeles Biennale that year. Since then, he’s had solo shows in New York, Texas, Madrid and Berlin.

His influences in the illustration world include Brit David Shrigley, whose work is satirical, crude, deliberately dysfunctional and very funny. ‘I love his humour,’ says Dzama. Stockholm-based artist Jockum Nordström is a friend, and the two have had a show together at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.

‘Drawing has been neglected in the art world for a while,’ says Dzama. ‘People like its intimacy. Advertising is huge and in-your-face, it surrounds you, but illustration tells you more about the artist than other media. A little piece of that person comes across,’ he says.

Dzama’s first book, The Berlin Years (a deceptively witty title – he has only visited the city for two weeks, but wanted the tome ‘to sound like an old novel’) is due out soon, published by cult author Dave Eggers’ McSweeney Books.

And New York’s Drawing Center is staging an exhibition on The Royal Art Lodge in January, which amuses Dzama who thinks he’s a bit young for a retrospective. If David Beckham can have two autobiographies at 27, why not?

Drawings for Dante shows at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, 1 Bruton Place, London W1, from 31 October to 13 December.

David Shrigley is talking at the Royal College of Art on 4 November at 7pm. Lectures are free, but booking is essential: call 020 7590 4483

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