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Zander Blom

March 16 / 2022

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In celebration of two years of TONGUES, we chatted again to one of our very first interviewees, the Cape Town-based artist Zander Blom. He reflects on life, his creative practice and his 10th solo show with Stevenson, ‘Monochrome Paintings’, which runs until 19 March.

 

Q >When we last interviewed you it was in late 2019, a few months before the launch of TONGUES. In what ways do you think you’ve remained the same? In what ways are you different?

A >I reread the interview from 2019 and it does seem like a lifetime ago. I feel very different from that person and it’s hard to put my finger on why. I’m strangely more at peace overall. I feel less ambitious in terms of wanting to do a lot of different projects, and more focused on just making paintings. Perhaps it’s the nature of the new paintings or their process that has calmed me down. Perhaps it’s because I’m nearing my 40th birthday. Perhaps it’s because I started running on the mountain at least three times a week. Covid should probably also get some credit for not only the big obvious things, but also the small ripple effects it sent through everybody’s lives that we haven’t been able to really quantify or make sense of yet.

Q >You’ve mentioned that while working on your latest body of work, you were inspired by photographs of modernist sculpture in particular, and photography more generally. Tell us more about how photography has influenced the direction you took with ‘Monochrome Paintings’.

A >I love poring over photographic images of paintings, sculptures, nature, culture, history, the cosmos etc., in books. I’m especially fond of grainy black and white images in old publications — they seem magical to me. Part of the reason I did a lot of photographic work when I was younger was that I was seduced by the depth and drama that one can achieve in photography with things like lighting, camera angle, grain, blur, tonality. 

The way I’m currently working with oil paint also relies heavily on a three-dimensional illusion of depth in a way which is close to the qualities inherent in photography. The depth comes from the gradients and textures created by smearing rubber and silicone utensils through the black oil paint, revealing the finely grained white canvas surface to varying degrees. You can say it’s like sculpting with light because it’s a subtractive painting process. When I realised how closely these techniques could mimic grainy black and white photographic qualities, I tore out loads of images from my favourite sources and stuck them up on my walls as references. Strictly speaking the new work doesn’t have much to do with these references conceptually. It’s more that photographic reproductions act as a kind of compost of lighting, form, texture and composition out of which I can cultivate interesting shapes and forms for the paintings. 

I think I was drawn to images of modernist sculpture because they are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space that is a step removed from the natural world — unlike, say, a photograph of a tree or a body. They have been very helpful in making shapes that allude to many things but don’t signify anything specific. Abstract photography from the early 20th Century has also been very helpful — the work of Bill Brandt, Man Ray, Edward Weston and the like.

 

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 206 x 308.5cm / oil on linen

 

Q >Tell us about the other influences and inspirations that have helped shape these paintings?

A >I’ve had a soft spot for abstract expressionism for a long time. The scale, the boldness, the textures, the ability to create incredible emotive responses in a viewer without telling a story, without figurative signifiers leading you along. Like tumbling into the void-like white noise of a massive Pollock or being transfixed by a pulsating/vibrating Rothko. There is something about seemingly being able to say so much yet nothing at all simultaneously. I find this idea incredibly attractive. 

I also love the drips, splats and smears that one finds in abstract expressionism and movements like Gutai. I love the idea of painting with your whole body, in big gestures, as opposed to using your wrists in small movements. There is something generous about those kinds of big gestures. There is a beautiful vitality, immediacy and violence in the work of people like Jackson Pollock and Kazuo Shiraga. But working in that fashion today can feel a little bit cheesy because we associate drips, splats and smears with a virtuosic performance of personal pain and angst. It’s the old tortured-genius-pouring-out-their-soul trope. That kind of unadulterated sincerity and showiness seems somewhat trite today. 

Up until now I haven’t found a way to incorporate drips, splats or smears in my own work without having to frame my efforts as an ironic or tongue-in-cheek gesture in reference to the past. But with the new series of paintings there is such a strong figurative suggestiveness, three-dimensionality and reference to nature that these techniques seem to read as natural phenomena instead of the artist’s pained expression. It becomes limbs and objects tearing apart, creatures forming and disintegrating, worlds colliding and exploding into each other, snapshots of fantastical yet abstract moments frozen in time. So for the first time I can use those techniques without feeling like I have to apologise for them, because they serve the image and don’t point back at me and whatever trauma a viewer might imagine I suffer from. 

You can say that the compositions are saved by the figurative suggestiveness and reference to nature, while at the same time the figurative elements never quite resolve into something specific or concrete. It remains suggested, allowing the paintings to retain a kind of open mystery, a story that never settles. It goes back to that idea of saying everything and nothing at the same time.

Q >You’ve been searching for silicone implements to use with paint. Where’s the strangest place you found them? And which tool have you enjoyed using the most?

A >My tools have all come from the most ordinary places like kitchenware and hardware stores. For example, I recently found a soft rubber hot water bottle at a pharmacy that I can’t wait to cut up and experiment with. Some of my favourite tools have been silicone baking mats, pieces of thick rubber flooring, the textured inside of a silicone cleaning glove, silicone moulds for chocolates, spatulas, etc. My current favourite is a piece of a silicone muffin baking tray with small incisions cut with a box cutter that has been stapled to a wooden handle. I’ve really just started exploring the potential for tools. The next step is probably to buy liquid rubber/silicone that is used to make moulds and pour my own tools, but I haven’t gotten that far just yet.

Q >You’ve stressed the importance of “trust[ing] what your hands want to do no matter what your head is saying”. Is it easy to ignore your mind (and all the speculation, criticism and doubt that it may contain) to get back to work? What are your strategies or tools that help to ensure that trust in your hands wins the day?

A >I trust in pitching up every day, and I trust in work. I spend a lot of time organising the studio, cleaning tools, sticking up references, making quick compositional sketches, getting paint mixtures ready, putting out fresh canvases — so that the studio is always ready, inviting new work to begin, giving me no excuse to stall. 

I also trust in temperament. I think you have to learn to understand your own temperament, not go against yourself, and just receive the work as it comes, without too much preemptive judgement. This has so far dictated that I stay fluid and open to change no matter how much my intellectual brain wants to stay in a specific moment or mode of painting. The reasoning goes that if I’m excited about what I’m doing while I’m doing it, enjoying the process and feeling challenged, then that energy will be embedded in the work no matter what shape the work takes. The downside of this approach is that I often abandon my own well-laid plans. I’ll be working on something that I know is strong and sound but then suddenly find myself unable to really care or be interested in it. Then it’s time to move on and embrace whatever change comes. This usually just happens without thinking, unless I actively stop myself out of some kind of fear — fear of whether the work will be good enough, fear of what my peers might say, fear of how the market will react. But I know that if I give that fear any kind of power it will most certainly lead to a block or stalemate. And in the end the only fear to really take to heart is this: if you’re boring yourself, you’re likely to bore everyone else. 

For others, trusting in temperament may mean different things. Take someone like Giorgio Morandi who spent his life painting mostly small still lifes of bottles and vases; those paintings are spectacular in their understated sensitivity. It must have suited his temperament to stay in that very narrow modest space. Otherwise he would surely have gone mad, or produced mediocre work. 

Recently I’ve started realising that sitting around thinking and looking for long periods before taking action can have great benefits. Apparently Cy Twombly would sit for days staring at a canvas before finally getting up and making a couple of quick gestures. Then a painting wouldn’t take very long to paint from start to finish. But this can be dangerous advice for a young artist, I think, because it can be misunderstood and encourage laziness and procrastination. I dabble in this kind of method now because I want to work smarter, with more intent, focused energy and precision, but I tread this territory with caution because I know the risks here are very high. Everyone has their own issues but for me personally, if I haven’t painted anything for a couple of days, if there are no freshly painted wet surfaces around me in the studio, I get very agitated.

Q >Irreverence, frustration, ecstasy, urgency, humour, pleasure… which emotions play a role in your process, and how do you navigate through these when creating your compositions?

A >All of the above, but I think the emotions help navigate the way through, if that makes sense. All of those emotions help you better see and understand what it is that you’re involved in and help you figure out whether what you’re making has any kind of power or is of any consequence. Otherwise you would feel no or very little emotion.

Q >What music have you been listening to while painting?

A >My music taste has become very pedestrian. I used to be into all kinds of things that the average person would be hard pressed to call music. I’ve somehow lost my appetite for compositions of abstract noise, for example. I sense it has to do with youth and fashion. Perhaps in a youthful desire to belong to an imagined intellectual group or be different, I elevated things to the profound in my mind when they were really just “cool” noise. It’s kind of ironic that I’ve returned to abstraction in painting with such a bang but no longer seem to have time for abstraction in music except for a select few composers. These days I listen mostly to mainstream and classical stuff or podcasts while I’m working. And I don’t really get emotionally attached to anything like I used to do. Maybe I’m just in a funk musically speaking, or too focused on painting to have much space for music in my brain.

Q >Define what a “good day” in your studio is for you.

A >It’s a day when there has been any kind of progress towards making an exciting painting, whether it’s been spent sketching or looking and thinking and making notes or actually working on a new canvas. A really good day is when I painted a canvas that I’m very satisfied with.

It’s the days when I get bogged down with admin and emails that make me anxious, but I know those days are important too. You’ve got to keep your house in order. If I only ever work on paintings my very simple carefully constructed little life as an artist would eventually start falling apart.

 

 

Q >We LOVE zines. And you’ve been making some! Tell us about them.

A >With the Garage-ism show it felt appropriate to do something that falls in the format/genre of the classic artist manifesto. The cover design was based on F.T. Marinetti’s “Zang Tumb Tumb” futurist manifesto of 1912–1914, but with a contemporary humorous twist, and the design throughout was very loose, not taking itself too seriously. We printed it on newsprint with a risograph printer which really gave it that manifesto feeling.

With the Monochrome Paintings show it was a more straightforward catalogue with simple effective design to showcase the new works.

I’m very proud of the Garage-ism Manifesto and the more recent publication for the Monochrome show, not so much for my contributions as for the way they came together so beautifully as a team effort. I wrote the text, took some studio images and had a bit of input on the design side, but it’s my handler at Stevenson gallery who really pushed for us to do something cool and special for both shows. He came up with the idea of zine-like publications, set it all in motion, and managed the process. Gabrielle Guy did all the heavy lifting on the design side and the Stevenson team assisted with editing.

Q >What do you like and dislike about the art world?

A >There can be a simplicity to the commerce of art that I like. You make an object, someone sees and likes said object, and a transaction occurs. Sure there are often a lot of complex things happening behind the scenes to facilitate this but compared to other fields you can actually live a really simple existence if you choose to. Maybe I’m just a primitive guy but the idea of a painting exchanged for food in your fridge and a roof over your head is really freeing and satisfying. There is a kind of unpretentiousness and honesty to it in terms of time, labour and craft. If you compare this to the complex machinations of many other fields, it’s kind of amazing how simple and fulfilling a life you can have as an artist. Yes, you can get caught up in all the hype and speculation that occurs around different artists at different times and the constant shifting of trends and ideologies. To me that’s really none of my business. I like to keep my head down, do the work, while believing that if I consistently do a good enough job in the studio I’ll be OK. Maybe that’s naïve, but it’s worked out for me so far.

Q >What comes next?

A >Hopefully just an endless stream of long stretched-out days and nights of painting in the studio, many late-afternoon life-affirming jogs on the mountain, good health and not too many distractions.

 

Blom was born in 1982 in Pretoria, and lives in Cape Town.

Solo shows include Polaris and Ursa Minor at the Institute of Contemporary Art Indian Ocean in Port Louis, Mauritius (2017); Monochrome works and New Works at Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf (2021; 2017; 2015); Place and Space at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, USA (2011-12); The Black Hole Universe at Galerie van der Mieden in Antwerp and 5x6x9, Berlin (2010); in addition to nine exhibitions at Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg (2010-22). Garage Party, his first solo exhibition in New York, took place at signs and symbols (2021). 

Group shows include Mapping Worlds at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town (2019); Assessing Abstraction at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2018); Gestalt & Becoming at Feldbusch Wiesner Rudolph, Berlin (2016); Exchange at Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf (2016); Home Truths: Domestic Interiors in South Africa at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2016); Material Matters: New Art from Africa at the Institute of Contemporary Art Indian Ocean in Port Louis, Mauritius (2015); Handle with Care!, the ninth Ostrale International Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Ostrale Centre in Dresden (2015); Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart at the New Church Museum, Cape Town (2015); The Evolution of Art 1830-2140, Kuckei + Kuckei, Berlin (2013); The Global Contemporary: Art worlds after 1989, ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany (2011); Ampersand, Daimler Contemporary, Berlin (2010); and ZA: Young art from South Africa, Palazzo Delle Papesse, Siena, Italy (2008).

In 2014, Blom won the third Jean-François Prat Prize for contemporary art in Paris. He is included in Phaidon’s current anthology of contemporary painting, Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting (2016). His second catalogue raisonné, Paintings Volume II, with an essay by Nicola Trezzi, was published by Stevenson in December 2016.

 

View the catalogue of ‘Monochrome Paintings’ here.
Images courtesy of Zander Blom and STEVENSON gallery.
© Zander Blom

Monochrome Paintings — exhibition view at STEVENSON gallery. Photography by Nina Lieska

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 159 x 211cm / oil on linen

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 179 x 211cm / oil on linen

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 152 x 115cm / oil on linen

Zander Blom — Studio

Zander Blom — Studio

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 192 x 211cm / oil on linen

Monochrome Paintings — exhibition view at STEVENSON gallery. Photography by Nina Lieska

Monochrome Paintings — exhibition view at STEVENSON gallery. Photography by Nina Lieska

Zander Blom — Monochrome Paintings. 94 x 70.5 cm / oil on linen