Marcel Dzama: Ghosts of Canoe Lake

Galleries West

By: Paul Gessell

April 1, 2024

Original URL: Marcel Dzama: Ghosts of Canoe Lake – Galleries West

Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), We can not abandon such beauty, 2023, pearlescent acrylic, ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 30.5 x 36.2 cm, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner © Marcel Dzama

When the McMichael Canadian Art Collection offered Marcel Dzama a solo show, the Ontario museum expected the globe-trotting, Winnipeg-nurtured artist would concentrate on his usual obsessions — anarchism, revolution, feminism, authoritarianism and resistance.

Dzama had other ideas. The artist is best known for his mischievous but menacing fantasy characters acting out complicated narratives in drawings, painting and films. But he said he wanted to explore the Canadian landscape, especially the Ontario wilderness captured by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.

Coincidentally, the McMichael, a veritable temple to the Group of Seven in Kleinburg, Ont., was slated to have a major Tom Thomson exhibition overlapping with part of the planned Dzama one.

Thus was born Ghosts of Canoe Lake: New Works by Marcel Dzama. The nationally touring exhibition, stickhandled by McMichael’s chief curator, Sarah Milroy, is on now through June 9. Canoe Lake is in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park and is the site of Thomson’s mysterious drowning in 1917.

Following the McMichael showing, the exhibition visits Contemporary Calgary (a co-organizer of the show) and then Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, where a youthful Dzama worked as an art installer in the 1990s, belonged to the eclectic art collective Royal Art Lodge and later became a popular solo international star based in New York. His last major exhibition in Canada was in 2010 at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), Waiting on Tom’s ghost, 2023, pearlescent acrylic, ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 36.8 x 36.2 cm, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner © Marcel Dzama

Dzama’s obsessions are illustrated by figures, both human and animal, that look lifted from the pages of century-old, often scary, children’s storybooks. Essentially, Dzama, who turns 50 this May, has created a language all his own that evolved from his childhood dreams in Winnipeg of becoming a comic book cartoonist. That language is employed in the 40 new works on paper in the exhibition, including watercolours and what are termed scrapbook collages. Many scenes are set beside or on a lake. We see Thomson’s watery demise in After the fire before the flood, 2023, that is, like most of the works, created with pearlescent acrylic, ink, watercolour and graphite.

The title work in the exhibition, Ghost of Canoe Lake, 2023, is dominated by a hooded figure wearing a ninja-style, polka-dotted bodysuit. (Dzama is obsessed with polka dots.) The figure is accompanied by a smoking squirrel, a billy goat, a baby, several staring, disembodied eyes and what looks like a large swatch of antique fabric or wallpaper. Dzama, the obsessed, is having fun with Canada’s obsession — Thomson’s unsolved death.

Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), Ghost of Canoe Lake, 2023, pearlescent acrylic, ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 36.2 x 36.2 cm, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner © Marcel Dzama

That same polka-dotted figure re-appears in We cannot abandon such beauty, 2023. In the background is a lake and a forest appropriated from a landscape that Thomson or one of his Group pals could have painted.

The ghost of Thomson also insinuates itself into a few works that reference the actions of a climate protestor last summer who smeared pink paint on the glass surface covering the Thomson painting, Northern River, 1914-15, at the National Gallery of Canada. In Dzama’s Unfamiliar drops of paint dripping on closed eyes, 2023, a masked woman in a polka-dot bodysuit stands before Northern River artistically applying pink paint. A cat and five organ-grinder monkeys gambol at her feet. Dzama, like the protestor at the National Gallery, is concerned about environmental issues but sees protestors defacing art creating a circus-like atmosphere.

Parsing Dzama’s works can be exasperating. It helps to know his various influences, including French artist Marcel Duchamp, British artist William Blake and Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who penned a screenplay a century ago that Dzama revised and turned into a film, To Live on the Moon (For Lorca). Thomson, as portrayed by Dzama, is a character in the film.

Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), To Live on the Moon (for Lorca), 2023, pearlescent acrylic, ink, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 28.3 x 43.2 cm, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner © Marcel Dzama

Dzama sees parallels in the death of Lorca, who was killed by Franco’s fascist regime in 1936, and Thomson’s drowning. To understand the parallels, one must embrace the theory that Thomson was executed on Canoe Lake for his pacifist beliefs.

Instead of parsing Dzama’s work, it is best to walk metaphorically into one of his paintings like Alice through the looking glass. Become a tourist in a strange, wonderful land. Savour those lands like you savour the totality of a fine dessert without asking what are all the ingredients.

Even Dzama’s high-profile fans can be baffled by his art. Eccentric Winnipeg film-maker Guy Maddin (Tales from the Gimli Hospital) writes in the exhibition catalogue that Dzama, “the Winnipeg wonder,” is a “steam train” called “obsession.” He particularly loves Dzama’s painted animals. “They mean so much to me, but I can’t figure out precisely what.”

Marcel Dzama in his Brooklyn studio, 2021. Photo: Jason Schmidt, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Marc Mayer, former National Gallery director, confesses he was unimpressed when first exposed to some of Dzama’s work years ago. “I couldn’t find a way in and was mildly annoyed at being asked to think about them at all, as if my thoughts were being interrupted by nonsense. They seemed wholly unrelated to the preoccupations and techniques of the zeitgeist, and inscrutably private to boot, like a cultural non sequitur.

But that was the point, Mayer later realized. Dzama was changing the channel of contemporary art. Mayer now praises Dzama’s work, especially the watercolour Ghost of Canoe Lake. “It has the right mix of comedy, darkness, quoting winks, nonchalance, anachronism and invention that I’ve come to love.”

The obsessive Dzama, it seems, can be an acquired taste.

Ghosts of Canoe Lake: New Works by Marcel Dzama is at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection now through June 9, at Contemporary Calgary from June 27 to Oct. 27 and at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, Winnipeg, Nov. 24 to March 9, 2025.

Media wishing to request an interview with exhibition artists, curators, or to obtain high-resolution images of the artworks are asked to contact Sam Cheung at [email protected] or 905.893.1121 ext. 2210.

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The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is an agency of the Government of Ontario and acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, and the McMichael Canadian Art Foundation. It is the only major museum in the country devoted exclusively to Canadian art. In addition to touring exhibitions, the McMichael houses a permanent collection of more than 6,500 works by historic and contemporary Canadian artists, including Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, Indigenous artists and artists from many diasporic communities in Canada. The Gallery is located on 100 acres of forested land and hiking trails at 10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in the City of Vaughan. For more information, please visit 


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