Figurative artist Inka Essenhigh is master of the sensuous line. She paints a fluid, dreamy, fantasy landscape of animated, human-like trees and biomorphic beings – almost always women – veering towards a narrative art. Scenes of nature show flowers, grass, leaves, trees and their branches twisting and turning in anthropomorphic gestures of reaching out, bending towards one another, and even embracing. While her paintings verge on minimalism, an otherworldly sheen comes from the high gloss of enamel paint. Her works contains ambiguous images that could be funny or grotesque often with a hint of danger, such as a twisted black tree whose base has a featureless face except for white, eye-slits.
Essenhigh received her B.F.A. in 1992 from Columbus College of Art and Design and her M.F.A. from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1994. She has taught at the New York Academy of Art.
Essenhigh doesn’t start with a definitive drawing. Instead she begins with “a feeling, a memory.” Then she loosely makes something up, using automatic drawing, unplanned sketching, and free association, referencing graphic novels or animation. This early study is an automatic painting where she works with forms to tell a story. There is always a story of some kind in her finished paintings.
In 1999, Essenhigh showed her paintings at Ditch Projects. She created her own genre of enamel for her fantastically featured stories depicted in a linear style. These early enamel works focused on line and flatness which resulted in a sensual and decorative style. But in 2001, she used oil paint which gave her work a sculptural and almost three-dimensional quality. In time, she began to mix oil paint with enamel, and in 2015 she returned to her original medium of only enamel to give precision to her work. For her, enamel allows us to enter into the world of the painting. “And enamel paint always suggests to me a sense of ‘outside of time, outside of space’. Because it’s so flat, it’s so constant, it’s so unwavering.”
Essenhigh’s paintings tend to be episodic and require careful viewing. Bright, rich colors seem to be lit from within, giving a primal inner glow that echoes Surrealism. Her characters of sprites, fairies, and disembodied people come from folklore and often exist as faceless, twisting shadow-like figures.
In “Treasure Hunt” a Grinch-like figure struts into a light-filled woods pulling some kind of carriage which holds something pink. Perhaps it is a blanket for a baby? Or a blanket covering a baby? Perhaps a treasure? This figure is following two smaller figures. Are these small, blue figures trolls or vegetation? On the left is a flattened tree with sinuous branches twisting over the top of the painting. Their sensuous shapes are more like wind-blown hair instead of tree limbs. A viewer is left to imagine his or her own narrative of this mysterious paining.
In her “Girls Night Out” three elongated figures are shown in an exaggerated deconstruction of the female form with legs, hands, shoulders, eyes, breasts individualized, forcing the viewer to reconstruct these figures as female. The rhythmic composition and fluid sense of line give this work a Japanese feel. The girls inhabit the left side of the painting while a green, amorphous apparition is on the right side. Its phallic shape is indisputably male and possibly sinister.
In a more lighthearted fashion, fantastical, surreal situations can be seen in paintings of domesticity as in her “Kitchen,” where an anthropomorphized pot grabs fruit and kitchen utensils to prepare food.
Essenhigh’s work has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions including Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, Venice, Edinburgh, Brussels, Salamanca, and others. She has participated in dozens of group exhibitions in museums and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, Turin, and Ghent,, Berlin, Nimes, and others.
Her work is in the public collections of Denver Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, London’s Tate Modern, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art/MOMA, and others.