“I have believed in the idea of perpetual change as a vehicle for innovation and discovery in painting for a long time,” South African artist Zander Blom wrote in the statement accompanying his 2016 solo exhibition at Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town. For over a decade, he had been reflecting on the conceptual and material parameters of abstraction through experiments in non-figurative painting. But a change was in the offing. In his subsequent solo show, in 2018, the scribbles, doodles and sketchy creature-figures that occupied his drawings now found their way onto his canvases, heralding a new phase in his painting that is still unfolding.
Zander’s current work features fantastic beasts, scrawls and riffs on famous art works from the European canon. Working in oil pastels and oil paint on irregular pieces of loose canvas which are then collaged onto larger stretched canvases, these works, playful and irreverent in tone, continue his deep fascination with the language of mark-making and material.
For his most recent solo exhibition earlier this year, Zander wrote: “there has only ever been one constant, one permanent [focus]: an endless infatuation and frustration with painting and mark-making—a stubborn, impatient desire to will paint into a compelling composition or expression of some sort.” While the style or direction of his work may change, Zander’s commitment to art and the life of an artist never wavers. Working incessantly and prolifically, his art reflects his deep fascination with material, art history, and process.
Zander’s start in the art world was as part of a three-piece collective wryly named Avant Car Guard who created satirical mock-art poking fun at South African art history and institutions. Around the same time, in his independent practice, he was engaged in photographing and documenting the process of creating elaborate installations. Following this he deep-dived into abstract painting following an ever-tightening set of compositional rules and guidelines. Zander’s work has been exhibited widely in South Africa and Europe. In 2014 he was the recipient of the Jean-François Prat Prize for contemporary art in Paris, and is included in Phaidon’s latest anthology of contemporary painting, Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting (2016).
AMM: Hi Zander! In an interview in the book 9 More Weeks you say that “The only thing I know for sure is that I want to be an artist and make paintings.” How has your understanding of yourself as an artist changed over the years and where is it at now?
ZB: I think that, for me, being an artist ultimately has to do with freedom and purpose. It’s about finding a way to be free both in a practical everyday sense and in what you pursue intellectually—to be able to make and think and live with the fewest constraints from society. Basically it’s about being able to do your own thing, whatever that might be.
So what is my own thing? I’ve had a longstanding interest in art history, particularly painting and modernism. I like working with drawing, photography, collage, video, but painting has always been at the top of the hierarchy for me. To be a painter, and to live the life of a painter, has been a dream since I was very young. What that dream entails, in practical and intellectual terms, is: I get to choose what I look at and think about. I choose what I make and the hours I work. I work from home and get to be by myself in a studio all day, to work with my hands, to experiment endlessly, and to take part in a visual conversation that has been going on for a very long time. But the dream is also caught up in the desire to do something of value with my life, and to find some kind of meaning and purpose that goes beyond just surviving.
Perhaps it also has to do with an imagined sense of belonging. In art I’ve found a place where I feel at home, a place of refuge. This is a total projection, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less real for me. I don’t know if I understood this when I was younger. But I read somewhere that we are way too critical of our younger selves—looking back we tend to judge very harshly, thinking that our current selves have a much better grip on things, that we’ve made progress. I’m probably more similar to my 18-year-old self than I would like to admit.
AMM: What is your earliest art-related memory?
ZB: My childhood is full of art-related memories. I’ve been lucky in that art was a big part of my mother’s life. She created a kind of cocoon of art and craft that I grew up inside. My memories range from making pottery and jewelry, and painting murals on the walls of our house with my siblings, to extra art classes and visiting museums. There are some images from art books that feel like they’ve been burnt into my retinas because I spent so much of my childhood looking at them. In a way what I do today is merely a continuation of the cocoon that my mother created for her children and herself.
AMM: A few years ago your work changed focus significantly. What influenced this shift and what ideas are you currently exploring in your work?
ZB: The most drastic change is the shift from abstraction into figuration. This change felt massive at the time, but now it feels like just another small and inevitable step towards the artist I want to become. I had been working exclusively with abstraction for such a long time that I exhausted my infatuation with it. I’ve also started bringing more humour into the mix—something that I tended to reserve for side/group projects. At the moment I want to paint like there is no tomorrow, like I have nothing to lose. Still, I find it challenging to work in a mode where everything is permitted, because I can’t completely escape my own rules. I can be pretty stiff and conservative when it comes to painting, and there are many things I haven’t explored yet. I’m slowly making inroads and loosening up, but what I’m really trying to do is push myself and all my bullshit rules and mental limitations off a cliff.
AMM: Your recent show at Stevenson continues your experiments with a pictorial language, which you describe as “frenzied figuration”.
What limitations and possibilities does this figurative language offer you?
ZB: There’s a kind of freedom in abstraction. You don’t have to engage with the visible world, you don’t have to tie yourself up with real objects or subjects. With figuration you are plunged back into the world of people and things. I’ve been enjoying the change, reconnecting with figuration, probably because I stepped away from it for so long.
AMM: We first saw these figurative elements appear in your work in mixed-media drawings. How did you develop and translate these scribble and loose marks into your painting idiom?
ZB: It started with these rough and irreverent drawings I was doing on reproductions of Mondrian paintings in the pages of books. I really liked the quality of the lines I was getting with grease pencils (Sharpie peel-off china markers) on glossy paper. I also thought that there was room to expand the language of scribbles and monsters into something more complex. I wanted to move this language onto canvas and find a way to get the same quality of line and texture on a bigger scale. Then it was a case of experimenting with different mediums and techniques until I found the right tools for the job. I currently use oil sticks and big oil pastels predominantly. Sometimes I’ll scrape oil paint onto a canvas roughly with a palette knife, but there is no detailed palette knife or brush work. In general I’m trying to stay away from mediums and techniques that will allow the perfectionist in me to come alive—I need my pedantic OCD self to stay dormant in order for these works to succeed.
AMM: What role does colour play in your work? How do you work with it?
ZB: My colour palette isn’t very sophisticated. I tend to grab oil sticks impulsively—almost randomly—and just make marks on canvas. I’ve never been too academic about colour. It’s been either black and white or anything goes. I only seem to have two speeds. That said, the oil sticks that I’ve been using come in quite a limited colour range. For example, if I want to use blue I only have a couple of different blues to choose from. So it’s also a case of having to make it work within the limits of what’s available.
AMM: Your work has always been positioned in relation to art history. In your current paintings monster-beasts are mashed up with reproductions and riffs on modern art classics – Picasso, Mondrian, Pollock. How do these seemingly disparate elements fit together?
ZB: A surprising aspect of the current work is that the combination of all these elements in a single painting makes it into a kind of self-portrait. The juxtaposition of these various images ends up saying quite a lot more as a whole than I anticipated. I also think the paintings are generous in that they give the eye so much to look at. Most people will recognise the art history references because they are so universally known, and this creates a sense of familiarity. These paintings often look like a teenager’s end-of-year art presentation, and I like that too. In general there is a weirdly celebratory, joyful quality to these works.
Art history has been a kind of hook for me to hang things on. Because it has been such a big part of my life, it feels like home. Who am I without these references that I spent so many years looking at? My identity is all caught up in it, probably because I didn’t want to hang my identity on anything else that was around me when I grew up. I still don’t know where to place myself, or how to really deal with my context in any other way. What is there in this world that is worth attaching yourself to, other than art? I know this isn’t a remotely logical argument, and sometimes I’m not sure if I’m exploring art history or hiding inside it, but I know I have to throw the net wider and dig deeper. The monster-beasts are at least a start in that direction.
AMM: There’s a playfulness in your current work which was absent in your abstract paintings. The paintings look like you’re having fun making them. Is this the case?
ZB: I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between being absolutely free and making the best work that you can possibly make, being the best artist you can be. Often these two things don’t align and you find yourself doing tedious work to achieve some technique or effect in order to make a better painting. This is not ideal, but it’s also no use having a great time in the studio that delivers mediocre results. Sometimes you have to refuse to do things that are painful or boring in order to keep your sanity, and other times you have to bite the bullet and sacrifice fun in service of the work. But you have to keep a healthy balance because if you want to be an artist in the long run you can’t afford to lose your love for the job.
For sure, I’m having fun making these new works, but it took a lot of frustration and failed attempts before I worked out all the kinks concerning technique and visual reference material. It’s flowing very nicely right now, and that feeling of breaking new ground can carry one very far—as it did when I was doing pure abstraction. But it is still early days for this vernacular, and it’s going to be interesting to see how long it will go in this direction before another big break becomes necessary.
AMM: What is the appeal for you in scribbles and seemingly naïve mark-making?
ZB: Mark-making is its own kind of language. You can make happy, sad, angry, lighthearted or demented marks; you can make virtuosic, pompous or amateurish marks. You can make stingy or generous marks. There is so much you can say with the quality and shape of a line or mark. It’s like acting in the way that it allows you to play different characters. Sometimes I scribble in a very deliberate way because it signifies something specific in a composition, but other times I scribble just because I don’t know what else to do. A lot of the time I don’t know what a painting or drawing is going to be—I just start by making marks randomly out of frustration or excitement and hope that something interesting will happen.
AMM: Process has been a central aspect of your work over the years. Can you tell us more about this, and also how your approach has changed in more recent work?
ZB: In the early 2000s, when I was working on a project called The Drain of Progress,
I realized that the process and the motivation behind the handmade objects I was making was very often way more interesting than the objects themselves. So I made the documentation of the process the primary focus of the project. This quickly led to a practice of making more ephemeral installations in my bedroom which I photographed and then dismantled. That way of working ran its course and after another two projects like it (The Travels of Bad and The Black Hole Universe), I became less interested in documentation and process and more interested in making handmade objects. I still document the evolution of the studio but it isn’t at the forefront of what I show on exhibitions these days. It has become more of a secondary narrative, and in a sense the studio isn’t performing for the camera anymore.
Perhaps I realised that the focus on process was stopping me from becoming a painter. I was going down a road of conceptual photography that relied heavily on explanatory texts and titles. So I pulled my focus back to painting, and working towards putting everything of importance into the final handmade object. This is of course impossible, because so much of how we look at a painting or any kind of art object is informed by the history and information around it, but I wanted to try to make things that had a bit more of a chance at standing on their own. Not to mention how satisfying it was to put the camera down and focus on the materiality of paint and canvas, after years of looking at a computer screen grading images in Photoshop, and tearing my hair out trying to choose the best shot out of 700 images that all looked pretty much the same.
AMM: What does a typical day in studio for you look like?
ZB: I wake up, make coffee, come sit in the studio. Have a smoke, check email, look at my diary. The diary is full of lists of things to do. I cross out some, add new ones, and then loiter about for a while, walking in circles. Eventually I start doing whatever needs to be done: drawing, painting, research, edit a video, master some tracks for a side project, do my tax stuff, organise the studio, clean working utensils, order stuff from the hardware store, etc. More coffee at some point, then a snack, then perhaps I’ll look at an artist interview online or catch up on exhibitions around the world on Vernissage TV. Then back to work, maybe a podcast is playing in the background. Hours go by, and at some point it’s dinner time. My wife Dominique and I make dinner together, and then watch a bit of Netflix. Then it’s back to work for a couple of hours, more coffee, get distracted, watch some more YouTube videos, read artist interviews and look at random stuff on the internet, more coffee, work a bit more, get tired, pour a night cap or two, pass out on the couch, wake up two hours later, crawl into bed.
AMM: You seem to work prolifically. What are your daily rituals that feed you creatively?
ZB: I feel like I can’t not be prolific because I have to work through things in reality, not just in my head; I end up making a lot of physical objects as a result. The process of making does tend to feed itself, because it’s like pulling a string: one thing leads to the next and the next and the next. But making isn’t everything. I look at a lot of art—it’s pretty much all I look at. I have many bookmarks of art websites and YouTube channels that I regularly check, and I look at stuff in art books. I love buying books—I have piles and piles of them. I make pilgrimages to bookshops every once in a while and usually return with a box or two. Books feed me in a way that is different from the internet, maybe because they hang around, they are here in the room, physical matter, not just immediately forgotten like so much stuff you see online. They are like the bricks that I build my house with.
AMM: What is The Bad Reviews all about?
ZB: The Bad Reviews is a collaboration between myself and art critic Sean O’Toole. Together we make music, music videos and various art objects. Sean is quite the music junkie, and I have dabbled in music throughout my career. We got together through this shared interest. While Sean had never made any music, he was curious enough to let me drag him into the studio and start recording random improvisations. After a couple of sessions like this it just snowballed into a full-on multimedia art project. Sean has a wealth of content and a beautiful weirdness inside him that just bubbles up to the surface when you put him in front of a microphone. It’s been amazing for me to try and find the best musical forms/styles to complement what comes out of him. While he gets into his anecdotes and rants I’m on a synthesizer making the music, so we both react to each other in the moment and that’s how we make songs. Our final recordings are chopped out of these long sessions. The whole thing is very amateurish of course, and I think that’s what makes it special—it has a very Dada punk vibe.
Collaborations breathe new life into my usually solitary world. I try to make a point of getting involved in collaborative projects from time to time because it is an excuse for me to hang out with other people and get out of my own head. I would be a very different artist had it not been for all the things I learnt from all the people I’ve collaborated with over the years.
AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to right now?
ZB: I speed read through a lot of stuff on the internet, as we all do. I just read about two-thirds of a review of Matthew Barney’s new show on Artforum today, and I generally check out what Jerry Saltz has to say, but I haven’t read a book from cover to cover in quite a while. I’ve just been too distracted. My literature of choice is mostly artist biographies and interviews. The last stuff I gave a proper read was a bunch of Hans-Ulrich Obrist interview books; a short book of Duchamp interviews by Calvin Tomkins; Portraits: John Berger on Artists—this is a fantastic read; and Gauguin’s Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter—also a great and often hilarious read. I’m currently trying to get into the Henri Cartier-Bresson: Interviews and Conversations book as well as the biography of him by Pierre Assouline, but I keep dropping the ball. I’ve also started Arthur C. Danto’s dramatically titled After the End of Art, and a book called The Books that Shaped Art History, but I don’t think I’ve gotten further than 10 pages in with either. I’m a big sucker for the DVD sections in museum gift shops, and the YouTube channels of the big art institutions like Tate. MoMA has all these videos about art restoration on their channel that I really enjoy. I’ve got bookmarks for gallery websites and some Instagram feeds that I regularly check out, although I’m not on any social media myself. There is also this guy James Kalm’s YouTube channel—he films openings around New York with running commentary; it’s casual but informative, I find them pretty enjoyable. And I love Vernissage TV—they film important exhibitions around the world in a very professional and neutral/slick way. I recommend checking out their channel for anyone who doesn’t have access to the real thing— sometimes these are enjoyable to watch purely as sociological documents of the art world and the people who show up for it at this moment in time. I listen to a bunch of different podcasts, probably the usual suspects, and for music I tend to download whatever gets a decent Pitchfork rating.
AMM: Lastly, do you have any interesting projects coming up? What’s next for you?
ZB: I’ve had a pretty busy schedule for the last six or eight months, and things are just starting to slow down now. I’m going to try and extend this peace in the studio for as long as I can, read a book or two from cover to cover, and go into a deep dive of research and experimentation for the next batch of paintings.
Find out more about the artist: www.zanderblom.com
Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.