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Student Review: Playing nicely?

Zander Blom at STEVENSON in Cape Town

By Anja de Klerk
28 August - 04 October. 0 Comment(s)
Installation view of 1.633 Untitled

Zander Blom
Installation view of 1.633 Untitled, 2014. Oil on linen 239 x 169 cm.

Engaging with Zander Blom’s fourth 'New Paintings' exhibition, at the Stevenson in Cape Town, becomes a rather curious and ironic (but nonetheless enjoyable) affair, when one considers his collaborative and overtly anti-establishment improvisational bad-boy art antics with Jan-Henri Booyens and Michael MacGarry as Avant Car Guard. 

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In his current 'New Paintings' exhibition, Blom continues his post-Avant Car Guard formalist high-art exploration of the materiality of painting and its Modernist history. 'New Paintings' number four is yet another expansion of Blom’s fast growing repertoire of works produced with costly oil paint on untreated Belgian linen and paper, which largely rely on sets of marks made though the direct application of paint from a tube, syringe (in imitation of a tube) or via variations of a palette knife. In this new series of thirty two paintings he adds to his controlled smears and splatters with new larger abstract shapes veering between the amorphous and geometric. These shapes are modelled in thick impasto layers evoking abstract material landscapes and distorted bodies in a schizophrenic but pleasing palette ranging from ochre, white and soft pink to black, electric orange, green, blue, purple and yellow. Blom aims and succeeds at striking a balance between careful control and random chance, generating mostly elegant and pleasingly rebellious abstract arrangements. These alluring and discrete works conjure up a range of Modernist imagery from Matisse’s harmonic dancing muses and paper cut outs to Miro’s whimsy and Rothko’s sublime colour fields. The palpable visual tension in these works seems to communicate desires to both be wild and contained, to disrupt and please, to be mocking and serious, and to be curiously suspended in between these states. 

Blom employs paint and canvas as things with their own material qualities and a sense of bodilyness, which draw the viewer into their own (often negated) thingness and materiality. His fleshy painted surfaces lure the eye to engage in haptic-optic play and tempt the fingers to touch its appetising, fondant icing-like sculptural surfaces. There are no traces of brush marks nor illusionist transparent layers of oil paint detectable in these works in which the artist pushes the historical alla prima technique to its single-colour, single-shape extreme. Blom’s canvases are employed untreated without a lick of animal glue or similar primer. Here and there he does cover his canvases in solid colours — these however are not priming gesso but oil colours applied directly onto raw linen as with 1.636 Untitled and 1.675 Untitled. (All of Blom’s paintings are titled: '1.' followed by a series of digits and the word ‘untitled.') Distinct layers of mostly single coloured oils make up Blom’s new shapes that seep large parts of their linseed, poppy or safflower oil constituency, staining the supporting and surrounding linen. These seepages may or may not be augmented, with the subtle and beautiful effect of balanced chance and control - the artist’s hand, the canvas’ saturation gradient and gravity labouring in unison. The raw linen draws on the oil from the paint, and the oil at its turn (with its linolenic acid) slowly eats away at the canvas fibers. There surely is an ironic materiality at play in Blom’s paintings, which are seductive to behold yet slowly and actively decaying, crumpling and becoming brittle. These high-production-value paintings will eventually disintegrate, that is without careful preventative conservation, and literally end up in parts, which would most likely expand their current sculptural features further into three-dimensional space. Of course this element of decay within the context of high production and exchange values adds to the tensions implicit in Blom’s current work. 

When one considers Blom and Jaco van Schalkwyk’s current Jaco + Z-dog albums together with his Avant Car Guard days, dancing on Pierneef’s grave and fictionally burying and creating a grave stone for ‘Die Verlore Kind,’ Kendell Geers, one would expect Blom to revel more firmly in the well worn Dada-punk, anti-art art and anarchist tradition. Why isn’t Blom splashing more active and fast working acid onto canvases or slashing them to shreds as Gustav Metzger did with his ‘damaged nature, auto-destructive art’ in the sixties? Maybe Blom’s ironic and slow material decay makes for a more palatable and aestheticised contemporary rebellion? Times and economies change. Today it seems that galleries do well with a little punk cred in exchange for tasteful and politely rebellious products.

To return to Blom’s work, 'New Paintings' is not exclusively an aesthetically charming painting show. Together with thirty-two paintings, Blom also presents three additional elements related to the wide field of ‘Modern Painting’ which are rather telling. The first comprises four sets of drawings titled Modern Painting 3, 5, 6 and 7 (Floor Pieces) which are mostly print outs of his previous photographic work combined with found images that (according to their titles), ended up on his painting studio floor as a protective or random chaotic layer. After encountering various degrees of paint spill and smear these pages were most likely reclaimed as drawings, rearranged and framed. The second is a single visually similar collection titled Modern Painting 4 (Palettes) which comprises a group of dislodged book covers, many of them with enough untreated space left for the viewer to make out that they once housed art related publications, employed as palettes with palette knives and oil sticks suspended in their still slow drying material residue. The third element on display, entitled Modern Painting 2 (Studio Furniture) is a small studio set up, installed complete with a torn out page from an article on Matisse stuck onto an easel and a framed Belgian linen delivery note with scribbles about the nature of art by the artist. This little installation finally and almost seamlessly positions Blom within the saga of the formal canon of male modernist panting. Although the paint markings on the: easels, table, books on modern art, chair, shoes and leather jacket are mostly not in the pallet of Blom’s current show – the markings together with the framed A4 document at first imbues the viewer with a sense of truthfulness and authenticity.

In 'New Paintings' Blom disassembles and reassembles large swathes of the history and formal elements of Modern Art and the myths of its masters, with polite restraint and a degree of visual and conceptual success, including its performative tensions. The question does remain as to what exactly the currency of this exhibition above and beyond these successes is. Why is Zander Blom, the Avant Car Guard visual anarchist playing nicely? Beyond engaging with modernity in art, working with the materiality of paint and canvas and enjoyably sticking his tongue out at his viewer, bad boy Blom employs the traditional formal authorities of the artist’s statement, oil painting, drawing and installation to evoke and claim a territory within the set mythologies of modern and contemporary art. More than being works on show and commodities to trade, Blom’s work functions as legitimating evidence of the idea of an artist. Blom surely is a cunning, entertaining and productive artist, but still one does wonder what else he can do, and what the nature of his success is, and what its cost in our artworld is.