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 Inka Essenhigh  (1969 - )

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: whimsical supernatural creatures, surrealism

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Ad Code: 3
Inka Essenhigh
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, written by curator Douglas Dreishpoon, is excerpts from wall texts for the Essenhigh solo exhibition, American Landscapes," 1999, at the Albright Knox Museum. 

Recent Paintings by Inka Essenhigh
Mutant figures devoid of limbs and heads tumble across vast expenses. Dramatic actors engulfed by radiant space, they writhe and spin, contort and extend, propelled by invisible forces and adorned by minimal props.  These are strange worlds, where nothing seems familiar and yet a palpable pathos permeates the chaos dystopian microcosms out of joint.  Peering into these airless netherworlds, perplexed and baffled, we search for recognizable cues, all the while wondering what circumstances led to their creation.

The perfected design of an Essenhigh painting, so seemingly resolved in every detail, belies the spontaneity that went into its creation.  Her works are deceptive in this respect.  Products of a process that combines drawing and painting with a lot of sanding, most pictures begin as a monochromatic color blood red, turquoise blue, light green, khaki gray which provides the ground for subsequent layers of rapid drying enamel-based oil paint.

Drawing has been the driving force behind the work since 1996. An image may go through multiple revisions, where passages are sanded out or deleted with turpentine, but through linear articulation it's finally brought into focus. That the artist refers to her canvases as "giant drawings" confirms the primacy of draughtsmanship in her process.

Most discussions of Essenhigh's work gravitate to her conception of the figure, because it's such a prominent aspect of her images.  Conceived against an otherwise neutral ground, figural ensembles are the grist of her compositions. Aptly described by one writer as "humanoid deformations," "cyborg-mutations," and "polymorphic droids," Essenhigh's race of cybernetic creatures provides a logical point of access to the work.

The bodies she creates, part human-part machine, display a variety of types grotesque and startling but also poignant and, at times, poetic. Tumbling toward the vortex of a tsunami-like wave in Deluge, they appear submissive and docile; proliferating like cloned bridesmaids on the extended limbs of a fecund Venus in The Marriage, they seem agitated and engaged. Their constitution varies from emaciated and skeletal to robust and beefy. Some appear in a decrepit state, prostrate and crawling toward an imaginary fountain of youth, or, lying unhinged amidst rows of phallic corn, distorted beyond recognition; others, conceived heroically as guardians of a desolate suburban mall, navigate with nimble poise. Against uninflected backgrounds, they float in a time-warped world whose only temporal cues are an oversized running sneaker on the fleshy foot of a disappearing Apollo, a space shoe on one of the faceless female chorus in the Adoration, the white, frilly tuxedo shirt adorning the mechanistic groom in The Marriage, the suspended pencil and fluttering book in Explosion, and the pop-top beer cans and comb in the lower sector of Goody. Issuing from darker corridors inside the mind, Essenhigh's personages share an art-historical kinship with Arp's earliest biomorphs at the same time they cross over into another, virtual dimension. More the by-product of cybernetic animation than cellular microscopy, Essenhigh's atomized beings take their place, among other surreal anatomies cast by Tanguy, Matta, and Bacon, in what could be considered a time-honored tradition of abstract figuration.

Essenhigh's figures are almost always faceless.  Many lack heads.  On one level, it's another way for the artist to eliminate what she considers superfluous elements from a composition. But her deletions have poignant cultural and psychological implications as well.  "Faces add baggage," the artist admits, "especially cartoon faces, which, like a stylized tattoo, can reveal a lot about yourself your education, cultural attitudes, personal aesthetics and so on. Delineated faces bring unnecessary information to the image and prevent abstraction."  Figures without heads also signify the absence of consciousness and the potential infiltration of artificial intelligence. Each picture begins, at least in the artist's mind, as a narrative. Complex thoughts distilled to simple scenes foster suggestive images that exist in the gap between abstraction and representation.

Abstraction warps the obvious, which is why many artists continue to use it as a way of masking aspects of their work.  In spite of their seemingly straight-forward images, Essenhigh's paintings remain elusive.  Even her titles, though helpful as cues, don't decode the image, whose spatial dynamics further confound accessibility. Until recently, when she began to build more than one color into her backgrounds, most images were conceived on a monochromatic skin analogous to the neutral cell of a comic book story board or the cathode illuminated monitor of a video screen which mirrored an imaginary universe.  The space of an Essenhigh painting is still simultaneously finite and boundless the equivalent of a cosmological void, a pictorial quagmire into which figures disappear or from which they emerge.  These are helter-skelter, madcap worlds, where fragmentation and dissolution displace Euclidean order and the only buffer to chaos is the arbitrary dimensions of the canvas.

"American Landscapes" doesn't immediately spring to mind as a thematic handle befitting these works.  And yet, on some level, apart from obvious references to Mid-western cornfields or suburban malls, it seems appropriate, as we ponder the future of advanced technology, especially its effect on our perception of ourselves and our environment.  Essenhigh's terrains, with their retinal-searing colors, polymer skin, and mutant tribe of survivors, forecast an ominous and inhospitable place devoid of light and atmosphere, deprived of seasonal changes, and stripped of local detail.  Hers are entropic worlds ruled by a few benign but mostly violent forces. Though foreign to us, they could be seen as subconscious frontiers where the artist's subjective impulses have free reign. In the end, it doesn't matter whether or not we empathize with these worlds. What does are their philosophical implications humanity's fate at the millennial cusp.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from

"Inka Essenhigh" by Ross Bleckner

Sometimes I see a new artist who is surprising because she brings certain images and qualities to painting.  Inka Essenhigh's images span a range from funky and cartoony to elegant, like science fiction rendered into Ming Dynasty decoration, Chinoise screens or lacquered bowls.  They seem effortless (although I know they're not), dense and seamless.  They have a certain airlessness.  I asked Inka if she had any of these things in mind when she worked.

Inka Essenhigh: "Yes. Around 1996 I wanted to clean things up.  I wanted my paintings to seem more artificial, like something that was made by Mattel.  I thought this way of working would be exciting.  I prefer drawing rather than painting.  I like to have fun with my work, and I wanted to do what I was good at.  It was the enamel paint that allowed me to get to my essence (the drawing).  I think of my painting as close to fresco.  I'm good at breaking things down to shape and I'm good at drawing.  I'm not really interested in futzing with paint on the surface to make a 3-D effect. The enamel, which is called 'One Shot', makes the painting more Pop.  It freed me to do 'stupid paintings'.  In other words, to find stupid reasons to apply paint.  But then subject matter became a real problem.  Let me backtrack for a minute:  I was a realistic painter but found myself with nothing to paint so I became an Abstract Expressionist.  Once I got rid of all the painterliness and lightened the palette, got rid of all the messy problems of dealing with the weight of art history, then I was free to make dumb things.  I could paint whatever came into my head.  Because it seemed light I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Belfonte, Pennsylvania, Inka Essenhigh is a New York City based artist who attended the Columbus College of Art and Design in 1991 in Columbus, Ohio, and then attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City.  She works from a studio in the Lower East Side of New York City, and most of her canvases are large scale.

She emphasizes her love of drawing and her ongoing interest in realistic depiction of objects and figures.  Landscape painting holds no fascination for her.

Essenhigh's work has gone through various stylistic phases, and she has changed her primary medium from enamel to oil.  In her student days in New York City and early in her career, she did Abstract Expressionism because it seemed the thing to do.  However, with her underlying commitment to drawing and her desire to explore of lines and shapes and her years of making a living as a graphic artist and fabric designer,  she has turned to Surrealism.  Her paintings, now done in oil with more muted coloration, focus on human figures, recognizable by forms but mysterious in their exaggerated features, odd juxtapositions and circumstances that stretch the imagination.

Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, Studio visit to the artist, 11/09/2005

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