New York

Marcel Dzama, A Game of Chess, 2011, still from a black-and-white video, 14 minutes.

Marcel Dzama, A Game of Chess, 2011, still from a black-and-white video, 14 minutes.

Marcel Dzama

Marcel Dzama, A Game of Chess, 2011, still from a black-and-white video, 14 minutes.

Marcel Dzama is one of a number of artists in their thirties and forties—such as Elizabeth Peyton and Amy Cutler in New York, Jockum Nordström in Europe, with Neo Rauch, perhaps, an elder statesman—whose work for varying purposes recalls the drawings of old-fashioned illustration, a word once considered toxic when applied to serious art. On top of that, Dzama has a cult following—actually a little too large and too glamorous, with its movie stars and rock musicians, to be called “cult”—and a healthy bibliography of coverage in the glossies. Even so, his recent show “Behind Every Curtain” was totally absorbing. His drawings are crowded with detail, resisting the quick read that the word illustration implies; if on one level they recall children’s books, pictorial charts, or the imagery used to send blunt political messages in Mao-period China, they quickly reveal themselves as too unpredictable in their free-associating extension for any such bracketing. Prolifically produced, they suggest access to a subliminal flow of images that it’s unlikely Dzama himself can fully explain.

Which is not to say that the work is without either deliberated ideas or conscious references to both art history and contemporary circumstances. In fact, one of the elements that prevent a too-easy digestion of Dzama’s images is their use of incongruity, both temporal and stylistic—a dancer en pointe hoisting an AK-47, sword-fighting girls out of Henry Darger arching over hooded figures evoking Abu Ghraib, women horned like the goddess Isis sharing space with structures recalling Gustav Klutsis’s propagandistic Radio Announcer works of 1922. One work in the show, from 2011, is titled An Age of Discord and Continual Strife, and though many of its figures could be guests at a debutante’s ball in the 1950s, the sense of frenetic activity and precarious balance, combined with an undertow of violence, seems to index the present moment all too clearly.

“Behind Every Curtain” included sculptures, dioramas, and a film, as well as drawings, but the installation posed the video A Game of Chess, 2011, as the show’s heart. Shot in black and white, with music but no speech, this fourteen-minute video stages a chess game as an intricate ballet, both comic and dark. Its protagonist is a dancer who makes the mistake of passing beyond a curtain. On the other side she encounters life-size chess pieces—dancers wearing elaborate costumes of Dzama’s design—who force her into their game. We see the frightening white queen kill a rook, which gorily spurts blood, spiking the scene’s artifice. But the heroine survives, a pawn who herself becomes a queen, and at the end of the game, she is the only character left standing.

Dzama has cited Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet of 1916–22, with its gridded stage and its abstraction of the body through costume, as one inspiration for his video, and his dancers’ movements, both graceful and clunky in their bulky fiberglass and plaster-bandage casings, recall that work while adding a current of menace. The chess game itself, of course, summons Marcel Duchamp, as does a peephole scene that may cite Étant donnés, 1946–66. Some of the music is borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), and I would guess the headgear of the Teutonic knights in that film may also have interested Dzama; in any case, its wonderful score, by Sergei Prokofiev, has a warlike sweep that is disproportionate to the dance’s constricted space and action, injecting into them a quality of absurdity.

Dzama sporadically cuts to an actual chess game between two men, played on a regular-size board, in parallel to the game being danced. The loser in this game ends up dead, shot by a woman with another of those AK-47s at the same time that he is checkmated. That particular weapon, ambivalently associated with both liberation struggles and terrorism, ties the chess game to contemporary events, making this stylized, performative war a correlative to real and present tragedies. And yet it plays out behind a curtain—the ubiquitous curtain of the show’s title. It is as if, for Dzama, chess manifested a constant of violence screened off in the world of the psyche, only to be realized in the pains of flesh and blood.

David Frankel