Hänel Gallery, Cape Town
Galerie Frank Hänel, Wiesbaden, Germany
Review by Seamus Wilson
Stefan Blom exhibition, DogFight, at the Hanel Gallery recently, attracted many more than the usual number of visits to a Cape Town show. Visitors included passers-by and word-of-mouth referrals – both rare audiences in a city with a somewhat jaundiced attitude to art shows. The installation comprised a dozen paintings, a sculpture and a video loop. The paintings were alternate portraits of men and dogs (Staffordshire terriers), in blacks, reds and oranges, using spray-paint and acrylics, in brush and scraffito techniques. Over these portraits Blom sketched line renderings of Cezanne masterpieces. The sculpture was an inverted female form, wrapped in white muslin that was drenched in progressively draker reds towards its head, hanging some inches off the ground over a pile of deep-red rose petals and flower-heads. The video loop was of a dog pit fight, evidently `illicit` footage lifted from the Internet, whose cruelty and horror Blom had taken some pains to soften by the application of red filters, diminished contrasts and slower speed. The fighting terriers in the video were recognisable breed cousins to the dogs in the paintings. All these works were installed in a pristine white Hänel Gallery whose walls and floors had been covered in huge sheets of white plastic over which blood red paint had been flung in violent spatterings. Emotionally and aesthetically the exhibition was held in place by a remarkable integrity, rarely achieved in installations using more than one medium. The sense of a gallery within a gallery, created by the white plastic coverings, was echoed by the paintings within the paintings – creating a distance and alienation from subject matter that is of course the everyday experience of video and television anyway. The application of`old master`outlines to his own (masterfully drawn) paintings, in itself echoed the relationship between the work of art and its subject. Within these alienating mechanisms, creating distance between subject and object, between painting and subject, Blom created a viewing space which encouraged association, interpretation, engagement and critical response. It made you think, as they say. More importantly, it was not didactic. There was no message, no agenda, no axe being ground. It is rare that one finds an exhibition where the ordinary two-dimensional experience of `looking at a picture` enables an analogous experience of`looking at a situation`. Blomâ€™s exhibition painted the picture of that situation and allowed the viewer to engage completely in every aspect of it without judgement. This said, it is probably folly to attempt any form of interpretation of the work. Being a fool, I will try anyway. The invitation to the exhibition, reprinted in large format on the wall of the gallery as you enter, gives the clue. It is the full set of rules for pit-bull,fighting. The point is that what we call a `dog` fight is in fact a `man` fight. The dogs are set upon each other by men, whose projected violence creates the event. Dogs fighting require no rules – only their owners do. One could go on. The point is simple. What is less simple is the continuity of expression and subject in Blom,s work. Only those who have seen Blom’s earlier work will connect this current view with earlier exhibitions where he dealt with those other objects upon which we project our violence : children. And of course this projecting process is what underlies the exhibition itself. We are, in dog fights, in the realm of authority and hierarchy, power systems, defined by rules, held in place by the threat of violence. Equally, in art, we are in the realm of authority and hierarchy, the set of rules holding it in place no less absurd than those governing dog fights and the violence associated with its patriarchal patrons no less threatening at the end of the day. In both cases the human participants are alienated from their experience to a point beyond consciousness. Of course, we do not wish to consider even for a brief second that anything underlying the arts could be violent. One of the `rules` of art being, of course, that it is always on the side of liberation, greater consciousness and better understanding. That art itself at the end of the day might be a part of the overwhelming patriarchal dynamic of our culture, is an uncomfortable thought for those who create, look at, purchase and read about the works of art. If actions speak louder than words, then perhaps we must look again at who visited Blom’s exhibition. The gallery visitors book reads like a list of anyone NOT associated with the arts in Cape Town. Perhaps that was why Blom sold nothing. Perhaps he sold nothing because everyone respected the overwhelming integrity of the installation. Perhaps it was because those who buy art do not like buying art that challenges the authority of their cheque books.