Zander Blom: New Paintings

Stevenson, Cape Town, South Africa
03 Mar 2016 - 09 Apr 2016

Zander Blom: New Paintings

Untitled [1.766] 2015

To accompany his new works, Blom considers his recent practice in a text written for this exhibition:

Mondrian vs Picasso

I have believed in the idea of perpetual change as a vehicle for innovation and discovery in painting for a long time. Even though the overarching themes in my work have much remained the same over the last decade, my style and techniques have gone through many transformations. I tend to be onto something new every couple of months, and if I find that I’m not, I’ll berate myself until I find something else to do. This approach dictates that you’re constantly on the look-out for new tools and techniques that will allow you to arrange form in ways that you haven’t seen before. It becomes a voyage of discovery, where you always feel like you are moving forward and learning. But as with anything else, today’s freedom can quickly become tomorrow’s prison. So perhaps it’s time to consider my obsession with change. Let’s say, if change has been the constant in my practice, perhaps it’s time to suspend perpetual change in order to grow and learn in different ways. This inquiry began with an observation: you start something new, then work in that vernacular for a couple of months, and just when you feel you’ve cracked it, you move onto something entirely different. This is the pattern. Taking note of this pattern lead to a question: do you change because you’ve followed something to its logical conclusion and there is nothing more to discover, or do you keep jumping from one direction to another because it’s easier than pushing on to a deeper, more sophisticated place? The old saying ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ comes to mind. If you’ve sailed around a pond and start finding yourself in places that look familiar, you may realise that the answer isn’t necessarily to keep sailing forward, but perhaps to stop the boat, throw anchor and start diving down.

In my defence, I decided early on that to be a productive, prolific and non-suicidal artist, I needed to always follow my own whims and impulses. In terms of influence I have generally favoured warm-blooded chameleons like Picasso over stiff squares (excuse the pun) like Mondrian. Previously, to me, this simply meant: Picasso was interesting and having the best time, while Mondrian was boring and having a drab time. But now that I’m in my 30s, doubt has entered the room, as it tends to do, and I’ve started to re-evaluate old Piet. Sure, it is well-documented that Mondrian was an awkward human, wildly unsuccessful with woman, a man who loved jazz but had two left feet, while Pablo was the life of the party as well as a masterfully misogynistic bastard. But for all the differences in their temperaments, for better or worse they were both equally committed to revolutionising form. It seems to me that Picasso was a voyager who got his fix by crisscrossing and circling the globe many times over, often going back over his own routes, each time just a bit more belligerently drunk on his own fumes than the previous time around. By contrast Mondrian very soberly explored the surface for a while but eventually stopped his raft somewhere and then ventured off below. Let it be said that Piet did his fair share of surface exploration – Impressionism, Expressionism, Symbolism, Cubism – but at some point he stopped bouncing around. The spot where he finally threw anchor was in the vicinity of Cubism, where only really Braque and Gris were still lingering. It was after all a place that Picasso and Braque originally discovered together, although Picasso had long since moved on. On this spot Mondrian proclaimed that Picasso and Braque were unable to see the implications of what they had stumbled upon. Mondrian treated Cubism as a scientific theory that had to be taken to its logical conclusion. And since nobody else was going to follow through, he would. Mondrian dove in, and bit by bit he deepened the game, stripping Cubism of all non-essential elements until he arrived at arrangements of flat squares in black, white and primary colours. In the end he even let go of the black lines. Mondrian explored that small trove that he dubbed De Stijl for the rest of his life, and he left us with a set of very refined artefacts, with not so much as a shadow or even a diagonal line in sight.

Not to take anything away from Pablo, the man who practically owned the 20th century, but when you start looking at his life’s work all together it doesn’t seem so disparate or radically diverse at all. In fact his output starts to look like one long story, one long logically progressing stream of Picassos. He never made the leap into pure abstraction. He built his abstraction on the armatures of figuration, of signs and symbols – a plant, a nude, a cat, a table. He might have shattered that armature but he could never just throw the damn thing out the window altogether. More than that, he loved that broken, beat-up old piece of crap armature, because it enabled him to stylise, simplify and caricature the world. He wanted to describe an object with paint in the quickest, simplest and most economical ways. Because he was still in the business of narratives and descriptions of the visible world, and this is perhaps where his real vitality lay, in illustrating a fractured century.

What Pablo wasn’t able to do was done by people like Mondrian and countless others who abandoned the visible world. By today’s standards, Mondrian’s efforts seem ancient and rigid, but his singular devotion to such a very limited area of form seems profound to me in ways that others can hardly touch. He’s like the Robert Johnson of abstraction proper. Sure, there is no doubt that Piet was way too serious and humourless for anyone from our Internet Age of Irony to relate to, but for me the beauty of Mondrian lies in his Zen-like devotion to form, his stripped-down simple existence and his determination to stick to it and not get side-tracked.

The beauty is in the dive, in the small expanse of ocean that he explored so thoroughly. One can’t help but admire the man; he really was an alien-lizard in a human suit. It can’t be easy to stick to one thing… I mean just think about it: one aesthetic, one philosophy, one formula, one clearly defined goal, practically a single image for the rest of your life. And just in case we’re getting too sentimental here, let’s not forget that he was also pretty crazy and deluded. His end game was to solve the problem of painting for good. He was labouring towards a utopian future where there would be no more painting. I love Mondrian but that is pretty creepy, even for him.

How relevant is all this to the exhibition? Well, when I started painting the gap between what I wanted to make and what I was able to make was massive, but in the last couple of years it seems like the gap has shrunk significantly, while at the same time the work has developed into something that I could never have imagined. I have tended to favour an experimental practice instead of simply rendering clearly formed ideas onto canvas. I initially tried to do the latter, but the results were never as interesting as when I let the paint do what it wanted. So in a way I’ve followed the medium instead of trying to make it follow me. Now I find myself in a place where I am more able to control the medium, nudge the work in certain directions and plan for specific outcomes. So I think I may stop sailing around on the surface and try diving in one spot for a while. It probably won’t last very long, but I’ve found a pretty sweet spot in the ocean, and it seems like a good enough place to start.

Cabin Fever: The trials, tribulations and ongoing struggles of a perfect life in the studio

My current home studio is more or less the shape of a shoebox. One-third of the shoebox is the safe side, a painting-free zone with a couch, coffee table and two working tables. The other two-thirds is full of canvas and paint. There is an invisible line between these two areas. When I sit perched at the computer like I am doing now, I am on the edge of the clean-ish area looking out over the mayhem. There has to be a division between these two spaces because you need some form of order to function like a human being that can answer emails, write artist statements and live in the real world, because painting is not the real world. It is with great reluctance that I get back into painting after long stints of living on the safe side: scribbling in Mondrian books, making ink drawings, reading, binge-watching lame TV series, making stupid music videos for my ridiculous music, making notes of things I need to do like get Wi-Fi internet instead of this 3G crap, maybe get Apple TV and Netflix, arrange icons on my desktop, create folders for potential projects and organise the data on my hard drives, update my operating system, look at weird shit on the internet, etc etc etc. It’s just a small way to reclaim the mundane, to get back at painting for all the time that it steals from my life. It’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t need you all that much. You think you’re so important that I can’t live without you, but check it out, I’m cool. I’m doing meaningful challenging stuff over here, I’m educating myself, I’m getting satisfaction and fulfilment when I’m not hanging out with you. Maybe my next project won’t even be paintings. Hey, maybe I’ll make some sculptures or installation, umm or something new media vibes… yuck…’ and painting goes, ‘Sure dude, whatever you say.’ Of course I’m just being an ass right now, but damn it, sometimes you just have to turn your back on painting even just for a moment. In order to regain some self-respect, to claim your territory, even if it is to do trivial meaningless shit – actually, especially to do trivial meaningless shit. Because when you get into painting and the studio is full of palettes covered with paint that need to go somewhere, and there are canvases spread around everywhere once you’ve started a room full of compositions, they’re constantly whining and shouting their demands for resolution until your eardrums ring.

The happiest time in the studio is the day after a collection, when a new batch of paintings has left, because by the time they are out the door I’m so sick of their complaints and demands that I can use just a little bit of peace and quiet. Goodbye and good fucking riddance! The days leading up to a collection go like this: the paintings say things like, ‘Hey! Hey! Dude, I’m not finished over here, how about just a little orange shape right in the corner’ or ‘Wait, maybe some yellow, but not cadmium, I’m feeling lemon’ and then ‘No wait, now I need something else in the other corner, maybe a pale purple rock shape’. ‘Sure,’ I say, ‘I’ll just make it happen, I’ll just swing my magic wand and make that perfect purple rock shape happen for you,’ and then another goes, ‘Hold on man, I’m not at all resolved yet, come work on me over here before you do anything else, I need something big, strong, textured, hardcore, bright, sharp, jagged, gentle, delicate but contained… ‘ And another whimpers, ‘I’m so lonely in the corner and I only have three shapes, I could really use just a little something to make me pop. Everyone else got a little bit of red somewhere, please can I have some too, just a little dash you know, please?’ I try to reason with it and say, ‘You are special precisely because you are completely resolved, unique and perfect without the red, you really don’t need it.’ But of course it keeps nagging until I eventually give in. It’s like being trapped in a room with a bunch of stupid insecure wild animals in cages that are all clamouring for your attention.

I fall off ladders, I trip over chairs, I put my arm out from mixing paints, I hurt my knees from crouching in corners to make little shapes. I fuck myself up for these brats. And you know what, they have no idea how I break my back to give them what they want. ‘You want more blue? You want more depth? Sure buddy.’ Not a clue, they always want more, and if I just give in and keep giving them what they want all the time then they get fat and ugly and lazy and spoilt and overworked and turn out to be complete fuck-ups, so I can’t give in to their every desire. I have to draw the line somewhere and just say, ‘Enough! Shut up! You’re done! Get out!’

And for a short while I have some peace.



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