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By Erik Steffensen

Out of nothing you come walking  

Out of nothing you come walking

as in a dream

out of nothing you come

walking softly

out of the darkness you step

like a shadow of light

not from the sun, not

from the lamps’ night

but out of nothing, softly walking

From ‘Ateliers’ (Gyldendal 1967)

 Jørgen Gustava Brandt

Alba, or Alba S. Enström, as his full name sounds – although I have to admit that I don’t know what the ‘S’ stands for – was born in Stockholm in 1960, but he has spent half his life in Copenhagen and, one might add, his whole life as an artist. He started studying at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen in 1985 as one member of a vibrant generation of artists who were faced with the challenge of finding their own orientation in the art world, following the predominance of the 1980s wave of so-called “Wild Painters”, spearheaded by proponents from Germany, Italy and the United States (which simply meant “New York City” at the time). Punk rock and New Wave music were chapters that had already played themselves out. There was no foundation left on which to build! The ensuing generation was compelled to either raise objections or to refine its way out of the predicament, since painting’s reappearance was – in much the manner of the music’s re-vitalization – contingent upon the market’s prevailing conditions.

The institutions had been standing with their doors wide open. The artists were making their impact; the (painters’) kingdoms and principalities had been divvied up. Accordingly, painting’s possibilities for further expansion were closed off. This can be understood in the way, of course, that there was a glut on the market. But the artists just kept right on coming ... from the academies and, to a lesser extent, from outside the institutions. It was business as usual. If you had something you were burning to say, you could deliver it to the void, you could issue a challenge with it, or you could simply repeat the model that had proven successful in previous years. Alba was Alba right from the beginning. He had his own model. People talked about his room in the dormitory. He lived inside a collage. He was an artist. But was there ever anybody who could pinpoint what this art looked like? Collage art. It folded itself out. It found its own frames, but was not connected in any way, with any market. If so, it would have to have been a flea market, but certainly not an art market!

Before Alba finished up his studies at the Royal Danish Academy in 1992, he went on a study trip to New York. This was in the spring of 1990. Recently, he spoke to me on the telephone about this trip. The artist is of the opinion that people of his generation were not particularly congenial at the time. Maybe he felt like an outsider. Maybe he just wasn’t so fixated on the shimmering gallery life in the megapolis. In any event, Alba ended up going on a sightseeing tour to the Empire State Building in the company of another one of the generation’s artists, Olafur Eliasson. Mainstream or right beside it. As a matter of fact, there’s really not much of a gap between the two positions. But both positions require that you scan the edge of the art scene: urban life, architecture, the culture of the body and maybe even music. Crossover and tradition often meet each other, but seldom at the galleries. And if you are not content to simply slavishly imitate the group’s trends, formulating your project requires a long approach and a lot of time. On the other hand, the artist will land on his/her feet, sooner or later. Celebrity and marginalization are merely two sides of the same coin. Just think about Andy Warhol. He paid his dues for fame with a commensurate portion of anxiety and loneliness, which are not to be understood in the biographical or psychological sense. No, they can be seen quite plainly on the pictures: on the Works. The closer we get to the end of Warhol’s life, the larger the paintings become and the less they appear to represent. Meter-long camouflage paintings. Recapitulations of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Oxidations. Proximity is out of the question. Tragedy emanates from the work.

Occasionally, over the course of recent years, I have come across paintings by Alba at exhibitions and I have received catalogues sent to me in the mail. It is quite clear to see that Alba is an artist who is constantly aiming at formulating his painting without casting any sidelong glances at either trends or tradition. He has not been testing his way forward. On the contrary, he has been working with a motific sphere that might, at first glance, appear to be utterly bizarre. And possibly even somewhat “sought after”. The models that he portrays in his bondage paintings are not authentic. Alba is not confounding nightclubbing with work in the studio. Yes, he might be living the Bohemian life, but he maintains a stance of modesty when it comes to his manner or working with the sphere of motives indigenous to pornographic publications. He is not walking in the footsteps of either Henri Toulouse Lautrec or Eduard Degas. He is neither a bordello artist nor a cabaret artist. Nor does he appear to be leading a life at home or to possess a bathtub that might potentialize the fulfillment of some kind of Pierre Bonnard dream about light and lust. There is no garden outside the window, no natural avenue of escape for the eye in Alba’s paintings. And then again, the work is not really a matter of pornography. It’s painting and drawing that count here. There is something that turns the painter on and a process is set in motion that transpires until the painting has nothing more to say. Alba paints. Not in the footprints of the transavantgarde or the impetuously wild style of painting. Not in a narrative form. Not in a historical form. Rather autonomously, just like that, in a universe where music, color and emotions have a chance to inseminate each other. Sexuality is the object of the investigation, but only with a view toward the painterly. There are no Freudian superstructures or substructures here: no basements and no dusty and unfamiliar garrets. It is straight on and it is hard. Bondage. But indeed, there is also a distance. The shyness. The uneasy bashfulness which evidently belongs to the world. When you are a man. The painting radiates its own chaste modesty. It’s not easy to be oil or acrylic paint on canvas. Neither is it easy when you make your appearance restrained in nylon, rope, nail lacquer and leather.

The next chapter in Alba’s art is a natural continuation of the preceding. The paintings are moving closer and closer to the iconographic. Pop stars or art heroes. Life as a meaningful novel consisting of moments. The nineteen-eighties artists’ painter-vulgarity combined with the present day’s sensitive scanning of the star culture’s private moments. Voyeurism all over again. But in Alba’s staging, with an eye distinctively peeled on the feminine. Suddenly one gets an inkling of Edvard Munch’s presence, offstage in the side wings. The psychic aspects of these matters, where Andy Warhol was also compelled to take up residence. Not borrow from. Not steal from. Not copy from. But dwell in and dwell on. Works that simultaneously resemble an accumulation of symbolist meanings and superfluous emptiness. The painter’s being-in-the-world. Alba’s solitude. The canvas’s narratives, which have withstood the test of time. Out of nothing you come walking. Poetry or reality?

Erik Steffensen

translated by Dan A. Marmorstein




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