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South African artist Zander Blom makes work that hits both with conceptual weight and incredible emotional resonance. He’s turned his house into a constantly moving, heaving piece of art, made records and books and recently embraced the seemingly more settled role of “Easel Painter”. We wanted to know more.

THITH: You have a love affair with some of the big “Isms” of art from the early 20th century and talked openly about mimicking them stylistically while embracing the differences in context from which your work originates and challenging the mythology of some of these movements. Can you speak a little more about that?

ZANDER BLOM: There’s not much I can add to that without launching into a long story about how I grew up. I don’t know what else to tell you, so here comes the long story:
I grew up in an environment where every wall was painted a different color, and there were paintings, murals, and assorted crafts all over the house. You couldn’t stretch your arms without knocking some object off a table or a wall. Rugs and decorated pots and statues and plates and vases, tassels on every door handle, not an open spot in sight. My mother is a Jeweler, potter, painter and general expert of all sorts of crafts. Our family home was filled with her creations. The moment my siblings and I were old enough to hold a brush we became part of my mother’s project.

We helped paint the murals; we made pottery, jewelry, drawings, paintings, etc. We were also regularly roped in to repaint walls, or move furniture around when there needed to be a change, and change was a constant phenomenon. We had a little holiday home at the coast. There were murals on both the front and back walls. Every room was sponged a different color with gold stars spray-painted on the blue ceilings. Every year we would paint something a new color and add new things to the murals. This is how my mother liked to spend the holidays. The front of the house was pink, and the murals on it featured a lion, some birds, and plants. It looked a like a Henri Rousseau painting. The back of the house was turquoise. The murals on it displayed a beach, an underwater scene, and some more birds. The lounge was bright yellow and my mother painted a Christmas tree on the wall in the corner of the room. It wasn’t any kind of Christmas tree you would expect either. It was a massive creeper like plant in a pot. The stems looked like they were floating in the sky but at the same time crawling up the wall. She and my father hooked little Christmas lights to nails all over the painted pot plant and we laid all the presents on the floor underneath it. There was another similar plant in a pot painted on the front of the house that also had lights hooked to nails all over it. It was lit up on December holiday nights. People would walk past the house and stop and stare at it for ages. We would laugh and peer at them through the windows.

There weren’t many books around in our home during my youth. My father is blind and my mother was not a big reader, so the small amount of books that we did have were my mother’s art books. This is where I discovered the world that lay outside of our warm little family universe. The one book that I distinctly remember from my childhood, the book that had the biggest impact on me as a child was A History of Modern Art by H.H. Arnason. I was a quiet child and I would sit and page through that book over and over for years and years. I copied a lot of the pictures in it, and it was where I first encountered the work of people like Picasso and Francis Bacon. Of course at first I had very little understanding of the isms, but I could at least measure Mondrian against the world of my mother. I remember vividly how I stared completely mesmerized at a color plate reproduction of Francis Bacon’s painting Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (Study After Velazquez) 1954, I must have been about seven or eight years old. It was an incredibly strange image to me. It attracted and repelled me, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was a sort of horror but not like a scary movie, it was quite exciting and strange. It was just this weird image that hovered around in my head and couldn’t go anywhere. I kept coming back to it over the years trying to figure out what it was about or what it meant. There were many other images that intrigued and puzzled me. Over the years my curiosity about the history of art and Modern Art in particular turned into an obsessive private study.

THITH: You’ve talked about your relationship to Modernism being mediated by the distance between South Africa, Europe and America. We’re wondering how it might cut the other way and if you can mediate some things for us about being a contemporary artist in SA.

ZB: I can’t really say how it might cut the other way, because then I’ll have to speculate, but I can tell you about my experience as a contemporary SA artist. This is how my life is at the moment: I live in my house in Brixton Johannesburg, and I spend my days painting, drawing, taking pictures, making music etc. The things I make get sent to STEVENSON Gallery (Cape Town or Johannesburg) who represent me. They show the work here in SA, and send it abroad. Luckily I don’t have to go with the work. From time to time I go for dinner or a couple of drinks with my girlfriend who lives with me. Every now and then I’ll go out and play a gig or do a show with one of the group projects or bands that I’m involved in. Sometimes on Sundays I’ll drive through to Pretoria to visit my family who lives there. I buy nice groceries at Woolworth’s, sometimes Pick ‘n Pay, these days I’m not as broke as I used to be a couple of years back. Once in while I am invited to go abroad on a residency or for an exhibition, I always try my best to get out of it. I enjoy my life in Johannesburg so much that I would much rather stay at home and focus on producing work. I live in a very specific kind of Johannesburg. It is rough and exciting, yet quiet and peaceful. In my mind it’s very far away form the rest of the world where there are massive art fairs and movie stars and media spectacles and incredibly advanced social hierarchies.

THITH: Your work from a couple years ago–The Drain of Progress (2004-2007) & The Travels of Bad (2007-2009)–was really immediate and striking. There you’re using some of the provocative installation techniques of early 20th century artists calling to mind Futurist exhibitions like those of Vladmir Tatlin, the 1938 “International Exposition Of Surrealism” in Paris or even the German “Exhibition Of Degenerate Art” in 1937. Those were all really shocking, and for different reasons, but have been softened by time. Your work reclaims the impact of those styles with a new originality even while distancing itself from any political or social necessities of those movements. Outside of just really liking the look of those works, is there particular meaning in being able to approach those works without all the historical meanings?

ZB: I look at what I do today as a kind of science of the picture plane. I’m perpetually trying to solve new problems, and creating new problems to try and solve. I want to make new pictures or images for myself for today, and with that comes a whole range of problems (conceptual, contextual, aesthetic etc) and potential solutions. The history of art is in a way a sort of dictionary that can assist one in writing new stories in the present. The way I see it is that history is only useful if we can plunder it. The social and political aspects of the artist’s and movements that I reference cannot be nullified, (in fact they add value and depth to my own work) but I am also free to use the parts that interest me and discard the rest.

THITH: In working with music, making books, creating works that extend out into the physical space of your home and then reworking the photographs of these installations it seems you’re partly playing with what the art object is as well as what the difference between the artist and their story is. Are you and how or what’s it all about?

ZB: When I did The Drain of Progress and The Travels of Bad I was very interested in the art object and the narrative of the artist’s life in terms of how I had consumed it through art history books growing up. Being obsessed with Art history, and given the way I grew up, when I got my own space to live in I just naturally turned it into these immersive environments. In one sense you can say that I had built these sets for photographs, but in another sense I was also just documenting the environments that I chose to live in.

Constructing environments like that also have a lot to do with creating a space that is conducive to the production of a very specific kind of work. Now that I’m focusing on oil painting, my house looks like a mix between Francis Bacon and Picasso’s studios.

THITH: Your work seems either incredibly playful or painfully time consuming and exacting to make, is it?

ZB: Some works are executed very quick and easily, others take up a lot of time and physical energy. Some works often look like they were painfully time consuming when they were in fact done very quick and effortlessly, the reverse is also true. There is no winning formula. Each piece requires something different. The difficult thing is knowing when to stop. I work on many different things at the same time because it is easy to get trapped in one work and end up ruining it.

Some works stand around in my house for ages and I’ll do very little to them before they are ready, but they need that time for me to figure out how to solve them. You make one mark and then you have to make another mark to counter balance and then you have to make another till the composition works. About 40% or more of the things I make never leave the house because I spend too much time on them, get very close to solving the composition, but then go too far and end up destroying the work.

THITH: We really love the work you presented in your first North American show “Place and Space”. What is your process for creating those?

ZB: Thank you. That show is a good mix of the kind of work if been doing the past three years. The photographic work is from a new ongoing series called The Black Hole Universe. The paintings are part of a long-term painting undertaking (I’ve only recently started showing oil paintings, but I’ve been working towards it for a long time, and I will continue to explore it for a long time to come.) And the drawings are part of an ongoing series of monochrome ink drawings that I’ve been doing for years. These three things are driven by different objectives and reference points, and the process differs with each, but all are intrinsically linked through it’s exploration of things like mark making, composition and perspective.

THITH: Back in the 90’s Alexander Brener made a big stink in the art world, weirdly championed by the likes of Flash Art, for defacing a Malevich painting because it no longer served it’s revolutionary spirit. He also took a shit in front of a Van Gough and in a group show of East meets West artists, his contribution was to destroy the work of another artist in the show without permission, ruining an enormous and elegant piece made of woven hair. Everything you’re about would seem the exact opposite of his project. Infinite creation instead of absolute destruction but, in your own way you’re also challenging the folklore of the Avant Garde albeit with a much, much more calming attitude. Is that something you think about?

ZB: That’s interesting. It’s funny actually because my first response to this question is that I’m not interested in reactionary work of any kind, and that I would rather spend my time at home painting and playing the piano. But then I suppose that’s not entirely true. Maybe the difference is that I’m curious about things and then I investigate them for myself. What ends up in a gallery with my name on it is generally the resulting residue of my investigations and experiments. I’m more geared towards making things to satisfy my own desires, than to make statement for an audience.

Of course, all art’s existence in the world is based on and measured by it’s reception and appreciation by others, fortunately each individual is free to choose how they would like to approach art making. I get excited just thinking about working on new paintings and photographs and books and music. To me it’s about challenging myself, seeing if I’ll be able to pull something off, or to excite and surprise myself, or try and make something that measures up to my personal standards and goals. The work does eventually end up in front of an audience, but it is not made for anyone but myself.

Perhaps my perspective also has to do with the political climate and the daily obstacles we face in South Africa. We have very real and pressing problems. Destroying valuable art because it supposedly does not serve its original revolutionary spirit anymore seems incredibly frivolous, even pompous and ridiculous to me. I think that, that kind of political idealism is a luxury of thought that we can’t afford.
That said, I saw a work of Brener online when I googled him now (I’d never heard of him before), which I thought was genius. It is a graffiti piece on a wall that reads: “Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of Capitalism.”

THITH: Finally, you speak a lot about creating uncomplicated, peaceful environments to think about and produce art, is the perception of artists as suffering something you actually find antithetical to making good art?

ZB: I do find the archetypal figure of the tragic artist to be an interesting phenomenon, and it has been subject to much criticism and ridicule in my work. I wouldn’t say that it’s antithetical to making good art, but I do think that self-inflicted suffering is tragic and no way to live. We’ve seen it in music as much as we’ve seen it in visual art in the last hundred years.

The tragic-suffering-genius-toiling-away-alone-in-his-studio is an old stereotype. I don’t think it’s that relevant anymore. Today’s visual artist’s generally seem to work towards having massive studio’s and a team of assistants. Contemporary art is big business, and artist’s want to be successful businessmen. But Contemporary art is such free and open context today that you can literally insert anything you want into it. If you think of all the different kind of art people are making today, the context is really like a global ‘Show ‘n Tell’. There is space for any kind of voice from any kind of context. People are looking for interesting new things, and new ways to look at the world. By implication, being an artist today offers a potential day-to-day freedom that you would not find in any other profession.

With this freedom I choose to live a simple life. I want to make things with my own hands, at my own pace, learn from everything I do, and enjoy the process. There’s no space for suffering, and no need for a factory. I want to wake up in the morning and have the freedom to decide how I’m going to spend my day. Am I going to paint? Am I going to make music? Maybe Rock’n’Roll, perhaps Dance? Maybe I’d rather spend the day making compositions on the piano? Am I going to read a book and make some drawings? Am I going to smash a hole in my ceiling? Am I going to build some installation? etc etc. Living this way is fulfilling and enriching. It is hard work to get and keep your life this simple, but it is absolutely possible. And it is absolutely worth it. What more do you need?

More on Zander at: STEVENSON GALLERY

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