‘I Have One Foot in the Subconscious and One In Reality’: As His L-Train Murals Debut, Watch Marcel Dzama Explain The Dark Side of His Whimsical Art

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Marcel Dzama: Organizing Chaos." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

New York’s subway system can be a chaotic, stressful place, between the heat (or chill), the crowds, and the general fracas of throngs of people crisscrossing the city together underground. Artist Marcel Dzama, however, is here to take some of the edge off.

As part of a revamp of the L Train, Dzama’s whimsical scenes are part of a new commission by MTA Arts & Design to reinvigorate one of Brooklyn’s busiest transit stations. “In these works it is my intention to bring the sun, the sky, and the moon to the underground,” Dzama the artist said in a statement.

One of the highlights of the subway has always been the art, though sometimes the pleasures of these attractions have remained underground (so to speak). As tourists and residents traverse the boroughs to visit the Met or MoMA, few realize that there are free public art exhibitions lining the tiled walls of the transit system, with figures including Romare Bearden, Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray, and Faith Ringgold being among the notable artists commissioned by the MTA.

Marcel Dzama's mosaic No Less Than Everything Comes Together (2021) at the Bedford Avenue subway station. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Marcel Dzama’s mosaic No Less Than Everything Comes Together (2021) at the Bedford Avenue subway station. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Dzama’s mosaics are immediately recognizable. They spring from his fantastical world of smiling moons and suns, and hybrid animal-human characters flitting around a fairy tale setting of undulating patterns. The Winnipeg-born artist spoke about the self-described “hoarder tendency” of his art in an exclusive interview with Art21.

In the interview, which originally aired in 2018 as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, the artist recounts his childhood, when he began drawing the Universal monsters characters, like Dracula and Frankenstein, incorporating them into scenes of the dark landscape of Canada’s bleak winters.

The most recent incarnation of Dzama’s work remains joyful—but there is still a sinister vein running through the whimsy, sometimes incorporating current events, with digs at Republican politicians and Fox News.

Even some of the more festive details originate in a serious intent: Even as he drew inspiration from the likes of Picabia, Goya, and Duchamp, Dzama began to contort his characters into dancing positions based on old dance magazines. But this was a way, he explains, to bring a sense of control to his imaginary world, to “put some organization to the chaos of this claustrophobia.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. Marcel Dzama’s mosaic, No Less Than Everything Comes Together (2021) is on view at the L Station in Brooklyn.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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