Zander Blom crouches down, and picks up a blob of paint that has become dislodged from a canvas. He holds onto it as he walks slowly, inspecting the paintings lining the bowels of Stevenson gallery in Cape Town. Many of his beige canvases are taller than our heads; each are painted differently — there are smoothly smeared melting geometrics; thickly layered oceans of brown and purple; fat, plasticky beads.
When he’s satisfied that they’ve survived the trip from Johannesburg relatively unscathed, we dash through the rain to The Kitchen, a cafe across from the gallery. It’s a week before the launch of New Paintings, his fifth solo show to appear at Stevenson. Tired of producing work which was becoming increasingly delicate and detailed, these paintings are “bolder, rougher”, he says. “I wanted to make more hardcore, weird, punk, childlike, freer stuff.”
Painted with palette knives and squeezed from tubes and syringes, Blom’s abstract marks, offer a visceral immersion into his own emotional and imaginative landscape. He compares his work to a colourful Rorschach test — “there’s no story,” he says. “It keeps floating around being open to interpretation and therefore it keeps perpetually being exciting and activating your imagination.”
Blom, 32, grew up in Pretoria. At high school, he loved painting, often working till three in the morning on his artworks. After matriculating, he began studying information design at the University of Pretoria and was soon failing his theory subjects because he was too busy organising group art shows with his friends, doing printmaking and “a lot of really lame videos” — the medium, he then believed, which “serious artists” practised.
While on internships at advertising agencies, he met art directors who made art on the side. “I realised if I kept on this trajectory, I was always going to be an artist in my spare time, and it’s either everything or nothing,” he says. He decided he would “rather be a poor artist than a comfortable, unhappy designer”.
And so, at the end of his second year, he dropped out, moving to Joburg to become a full-time artist. His parents were really unhappy with his decision but he managed to convince them to help him cover the rent of a room in a friend’s house in Brixton. “I was completely broke,” he recalls. To make ends meet, he ate a lot of pilchards and took on some freelance illustrating work.
Initially, the art he made was mostly ink drawings on paper because that’s all he could afford. He then created installations in his room, photographing them — exhibitions were too expensive. And he started painting. He had always wanted to work with oils, though it took several years before he was confident enough to share his work. The better he got, the more tired he became of sitting in front of a computer editing photos. “If you’re a photographer you’re always spending 90% of your time immersed in moments that are gone. I think it’s hard to live in the present. With painting, you’re perpetually in the present. If it works it, it works; if you can’t get it to work, you throw it out and you start something new.” It’s a process of “capture rather than manufacture”.
Blom’s work soon became abstract — not representing anything. He wanted to avoid “resistance art” — “that struggle shit” — as he felt it belonged to the past. Abstraction offered an escape from South Africa’s politics, identity and history.
Of course, abstraction has a strong history of its own, and engaging with this has been unavoidable. Blom’s favourite Modernists — Picasso, Francis Bacon, Matisse — have influenced his practice. But instead of feeling burdened by this tradition, he sees their work, and the devices they used, as a starting point he can “plunder” from to create new work, couched in a language of his own.
Blom believes that daily life — from the humdrum to the profound — has a powerful influence on what he produces. Joburg’s dry, drab winters have inspired the ochres and browns he’s been using, while the city’s tension and roughness have also filtered into his work.
“We’re quite paranoid living in Brixton, so I think that the paranoia does get into my body somehow and affects my art,” he says. He and his wife, Dominque, will be moving soon to Cape Town for a change of scenery. “I just hope I don’t move here and start making pretty pictures,” he grins.
In March 2014, Blom won the Jean-François Prat, a €20,000 international prize for young painters. Having never won awards before, Blom is happy but a little bit surprised that “a bunch of people in Europe want to give some white kid in Africa money for making paintings”. Aside from the obvious financial benefits it brings, it’s hard to see it having much of an impact on his art, however, when he’s driven by something else entirely. “The end goal is to just make more and more exciting work,” he says.
This article first appeared in the 7 September 2014 edition of the Sunday Times under the heading “Rorschach Taste”.