Somehow I doubt that, as Virginia Woolf once asserted, human character changed on or about December 1910. The belief system of a certain stratum of British society may have collapsed, but an underlying assumption that human character is British evidently remained constant.
The art world, too, sometimes mistakes itself for the whole of humanity, yet the shifts in its doxa—which can seem momentous from within, though barely noticeable to an outside observer—can go strangely unremarked. I tracked one shift some years ago, and to understand its dynamics you have to keep in mind that after the counter-counterrevolution that demoted the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s, young artists, no matter what they were making, thought it compulsory to engineer a conceptual underpinning for their art. Not everyone back then was making things that looked like conceptual art—grainy photographs accompanied by texts quoting Lacan, let’s say—but one could respectably be a painter only by being a conceptual painter, a photographer by being a conceptual photographer. Each artist had to articulate a new conceptual twist. The obligation to be conceptual persisted throughout the ’90s, and it resulted in a lot of smart, well-executed but often rather bloodless art. Then one day I visited a young artist in her studio, and she said to me, as if throwing down a challenge, “I don’t really know what I’m doing in here. I’m just messing around.” Suddenly the most sophisticated conceptual gesture had become the willingness to disavow conceptual gestures tout court.
I felt the ground moving under my feet when that happened. If having no concept could be a sufficiently enabling concept (call it “the concept of no concept”), then we were without stable criteria and had to go on pure nerve. God was dead and everything permitted. It felt good.
That was a while ago, and though the earth may have moved for me, I have to admit that this change in the character of art mostly went unnoticed. That was no surprise. How many artists could really have been daring enough to go conceptually naked? And yet I wish more would try. Ideas are the fetishes of thought, and while fetishes can be fun, more exciting still is the pure fluidity of thinking—when the open process of thought has not yet been reified into the stiff and brittle outlines of a rule, a slogan, an idea. In any event, even more quickly than it had moved, the earth stilled itself. In a matter of a few years, young artists once again seemed more eager to dilate about concepts first and present their work later.
Luckily, Ida Ekblad, a 30-year-old painter and sculptor from Oslo, isn’t among them. Ekblad is one of those rare artists whose work offers neither clear guidelines for response nor tidy concepts. I don’t always like what I’m seeing, and when I do like it I don’t necessarily quite understand why; but looking at her work is more challenging and rewarding than pondering art whose greatest burden is to advertise that its maker has outsmarted the combined faculties of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. The oblique formal intensity of Ekblad’s work is patent enough to invite a reconsideration of pieces that on a first viewing may seem flat-footed. I’ve caught glimpses of these pieces over the last couple of years, sometimes in high-profile shows like “Younger Than Jesus” at the New Museum in New York in 2009 or “ILLUMInations” at this year’s Venice Biennale, but only in the past few months have I been able to enjoy a sufficiently concentrated exposure to them to feel like I’m getting an overview. I recently saw Ekblad’s work at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York City, where she had her second American one-person show; and then at West London Projects, where her current exhibition, with its appropriately cryptic yet colloquial title, “Low Tide Bring Da Ruckus,” is on view through December 10.