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Alba 2010


It is strange how complex the process of getting to know a new artistry is. I have to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Alba S Enström's art when a catalogue suddenly appeared in my mail one day during my tenure as director of Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm. I thumbed through it absentmindedly, the way you do when you are flooded with mail. I remember wondering whether it was a man or a woman. The name suggested a woman. What man would be named for a white rose or a white truffle? But judging from the pictures, you suspected that it was a man, for - at least in my conventional imagination - it is primarily men who devote them­selves to pornographic excesses. For the pictures reproduced in the catalogue were pictures of women engaged in advanced bond­age involving other women. Surely a male fantasy, I thought. But the painterly touch possessed a gentleness and a tenderness that had to belong to a woman. The palette, especially, had a sensualism that I had a hard time associating with masculinity. That's me for you!

The next time I came across Alba Enström's name was at an exhibi­tion in a gallery in Copenhagen. I was there as part of my work, rep­resenting the Danish Arts Foundation. The exhibition was held in a small, crowded gallery around the corner from the Hirschsprung Collection. The show was not as monomaniac as the catalogue I had seen. There was a wealth of motifs, hinting at a world view that alternated between important existential questions and peripheral everyday issues. Even so, the exhibition did not seem disparate but was held together by a painterly skill of the same flexibility and sensualism that I had noted in his pornographic pictures. It was against this background that I was convinced that Alba was a woman until my colleagues disabused me of this notion.

The third time I saw Alba Enström's name was after he invited me to his studio. There I had shock number three. Alba was not even Danish, but Swedish. Despite many years in exile his language was well articulated and had remained completely unaffected by Danish over the years. Nor did he look the way I had expected. I had pictured a rather bohemian-looking artist. A notion that sprang from having seen his painting. Instead, I found myself facing an old-fashioned dandy, dressed in clothes no longer seen among the younger generation and rarely on young artists. Alba was well- tailored, with that touch of easy decadence.

We spent a very pleasant afternoon in his tiny studio, where we trot­ted out a seemingly endless stream of painting upon painting. But the richest yield of all was probably the vast number of sketchpads which possessed an intimacy that attracted me. Maybe it was the format that made them seem like some kind of reportage or diary in which time was a central factor. Many of the motifs had been cre­ated with frenzied haste in pen or paint before being abandoned for new ideas - which in their turn had spawned other ideas. It seemed to be a highly spontaneous process that let nothing stand in its way and with no thought to selection. There were pictures of flowers, side by side, alternating between teenage banalities and Nolde's sublime feel for the anatomy of a flower. Alba seemed unconcerned by the disparity in quality. To him, conventional crite­ria about quality do not seem to determine whether the pictures are to be shown or whether they should be censured. Here were also the more or less explicit pictures of the pornographic kind. Related to these pornographic images were pictures which to a greater or lesser extent fetishized parts of women's bodies or their possessions, such as a pair of shoes or underwear. Then, in the midst of this "sea of sex", some of his pictures somehow turn into fashion pictures displaying superb a feel for the body language of the fashion magazine and for textile structure. It occurs to me that Alba could make a career in the fashion world if only someone were brave enough to back him. But even as the idea strikes me, he abandons this, his strong suit. Suddenly his fashion pictures metamorphose into celebrity portraits, replete with all the gestures that characterize the self-assured ego-tripping of celebrities. It is a sliding scale where you never know where one thing ends and another begins. I have the impression of teenage pictures, full of naivete and dreams of love and appreciation. Is not that what we all want? In the midst of this hopefulness a darker side emerges, one distinctly related to the history of art. The pictures appear to be apocalyptic images, at their best reminiscent of William Blake's celestial pictures. His complex imaginary world view contains an explicit dichotomy between male/female, self/society, past/pres­ent, mass culture/high culture, triviality/spirituality. Is not this the very complexity of being a human being today? Maybe it is not so strange, after all, that I found it so hard to enter into the art of Alba S. Enström.


Bo Nilsson teaches curatorship at the University of Stockholm. He lives and works in Lund and Stockholm, Sweden