Inka Essenhigh was already a success when she left behind enamels for oil paints. It was a bold move for an artist whose work was already commanding high prices at auction, but her willingness to change when others might rest on their laurels has led to 20 years of work that still feels novel and original.
This article originally appeared in RVA #33 Summer 2018, you can check out the issue here, or pick it up around Richmond now.
Just as varied as her technique are the subjects: cosmic entities, fairies, contemporary figures, nature gods and goddesses, even anthropomorphized structures. They fill oversized canvases, inviting the viewer to step into the unique worlds she creates. Despite the variety, one aspect that flows through all her work is a superbly illustrative, arabesque line. It’s a technique that comes out of an unintentional influence on her work. “I always wanted to be a high artist. Picasso, the Impressionists,” Essenhigh told me, speaking by phone from her studio in New York City. “Even at five years old, younger, I always had my eye on high art.”
While she was passionate about traditional art, she also grew up steeped in the pop culture of the 1970s and ‘80s. She said her upbringing was “typical” for “a kid in Columbus, Ohio, in a white suburb.
There was just tons of Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal magazine, Mad Magazine. I read a lot of Mad Magazine. That stuff was just so in the air, I feel like that’s where I came from.”
Her work reflects both worlds, but her lines most reveal the pop influences. The fluid, stylized line that runs through her art calls to mind 1930s Disney cartoons or the fantasy worlds of Ralph Bakshi, particularly when she uses enamels. It’s something she “sometimes felt ashamed of,” she admitted, but she’s come to embrace it. “I think there’s something valuable in it,” she said. “Why do our brains make up these little fantasies? Is there something useful to it? Can we engage with it to find a better way to live, for the health of our bodies, for the health of our climate?”
That distinctive line is bold and thick in her early work, from the late 90s through 2001, but her latest work, a blend of enamel and oil paints, uses a thinner, quicker, more fluid approach to her linework. She said it’s just an evolution in her technique, part of finding her way. “When I’m stylizing like that, it’s very art nouveau,” she explained. “I feel like I’m conducting a musical symphony, in this abstract kind of way. I’m making the same kind of movement again and again. There’s a big swoop here, a little swoop there.”
It’s also the material, she said, pointing to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. “People don’t think of [him] when they see my work,” she said. “[But] his drip paintings are all enamels. It gets a certain rhythm.”
Despite her success with enamel, she shifted to oil paintings around 2002. Part of her shift was for health reasons — the enamels are very toxic — but an even bigger factor was her desire to try something new. With oils, she can create layers, employing what she called the “great trick of painting, where you get to create an illusion of a world that you can walk into.” By contrast, she said, “Those early enamel paintings, you don’t really think that you’re going to walk into them. You can enjoy those shapes on a decorative level, but it doesn’t give you the kind of experience of looking at a photograph and imagining you’re there. I love that kind of storytelling.”
She also felt she’d done what she wanted to do with the enamels, particularly in the subject matter. “In the early 90s, I set out to make something that really reflected the times, that gave a look to the times,” she said. “Not to be cocky or anything, but I did that.
I found a way to make paintings that talked about the issues of that time, like the internet, artificial intelligence, boob jobs and plastic surgery, and DNA and stem cell research, all those aspects of fake living.”
Even in oil, though, she would return to contemporary themes. Two 2005 works, “Shopping” and “Subway,” depict round, grey figures navigating modern life, but elements of myth and nature appear as well, in paintings like “Pegasus” (2001) as well as in “Gray Wave” and “Green Wave,” both painted in 2002.
These works were part of a period during which Essenhigh said she had “decided I was going to go do something else, find out about me, and make works that are more personal and meaningful.” By 2006, she’d start to shift yet again, when her paintings became rounder, softer, and focused on nature.
“Green Goddess I” (2009) is one of the later examples of these works. I first saw it at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, in a 29-work show consisting of paintings made from 2006 to 2016. During my visit, I spoke to Curator Heather Hakimzadeh, who said she was drawn to the bravery in Essenhigh’s work. “She’s a painter’s painter,” she said. “She’s continually re-navigating her relationship to painting. She’s continuing to explore; she’s willing to take risks.”
Works from this period are particularly beautiful. One stand-out example is “Moon and Tide”, a 2010 oil painting on canvas, depicting an enormous figure rising out of coastal waters and cradling a brilliantly yellow moon. “She puts beauty in her work,” Hakimzadeh said. “We’ve gotten very cynical towards beauty in art. But she’s realized when she’s creating these worlds, she’s putting a certain energy into the canvas, and she wants it to be positive. She wants the world to be better as a result of her work.”
About the many shifts in tone, paint, and surfaces, the mercurial Essenhigh said she “didn’t want to make paintings that were all the same for the rest of my life,” returning to a sort of core belief she’d shared with me earlier. “One of my beliefs is that when you are making a painting, everything that you believe in, all your thoughts, can be read in the paint.”
Another belief driving her changes is that “even if it was unconscious,” a viewer can see when “people are copying themselves for the sake of a style.” She brought up the pop artist Jeff Koons as an example. “I like [his] ‘Puppy,’ I think it’s great whenever I see it, but this is not a heartfelt, sincere, one-person-giving-their-heart-on-a-platter type of painting, which is what I wanted to do.”
Her focus on nature deepened over the years, especially after she built a studio in Maine with her husband, in 2008. They’d first started going to Maine in 2007 when she painted the tall yellow grasses and autumnal trees of “Yellow Fall,” but after the studio, her subjects widened to wild images of god-like, primordial sea and forest entities. As a New England native, these pieces make me long for home, recasting childhood memories of mediocre summer vacations spent on cold, hard beaches as treasured moments.
Recent work harkens back to her early illustrative style, but with a twist; she’s blended in oil paints to keep the layered illusion of depth. The new work looks as edgy and contemporary as her ‘90s pieces, but she said that even the seemingly political “Political Cartoon Painting,” painted in 2016, was not inspired by then-candidate Donald Trump’s unlikely campaign and even more surprising victory.
Of course, she’s influenced by the world around her, she admitted, but she maintained that politics don’t enter into her work, because she “turned off the news sometime around when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan.” She was disturbed by the national bloodthirst, and opted out of watching, even though, she says, “My husband, he’s a painter, wanted to go to the war and paint it.” In 2006, with him going overseas, “You don’t need to watch the news. I turned off the news and I’ve never really turned it back on. Of course, I know what’s going on, I do the obligatory march or whatever, but you really don’t need to watch the news. It’s a total addiction.”
If the work looks current, she said it’s the material, more than anything in the evening news. “It’s the enamel that’s always been more about the times and events,” she said. “It’s more immediate, self-conscious, because it’s more poppy. You can get more context in it. It’s not about air, space; it’s about things.”
When it comes to “Political Cartoon Painting,” she said, “It means nothing, honestly. There’s a guy in the middle, on a tribal sort of throne with ties — corporate ties, school ties — all around him. He’s presiding over a swamp; it’s half Club Med, half refugee camp, with some kind of charging… bull coming at him. It doesn’t mean anything, though. I go back to enamel, and things are much more political again, it all looks more contemporary.”
Essenhigh is the rare serious artist who is also prolific on Instagram, where she posts close-ups of selected works, occasional snapshots from those “obligatory marches,” and many in-progress pictures. Essenhigh said she loved Instagram, which she called a “Democratizer.” She added, “It actually gets art out there to other audiences. I think it’s bringing the high art world down to everybody, and everybody to the high art world.”
From an artist who is constantly in flux, her sole lament about art on social media is unsurprising. “It can make the work too familiar,” she said. “When I post too much of my own work, and people go to see it, all they can do is recognize it. It’s like the Mona Lisa. Are you really going to have an art experience with this thing? You’ve seen it a billion times, you can’t come to it new and fresh. It’s burned into the back of your eyeballs. All you can do is recognize it; say, ‘Yep, there it is!’”
In that respect, the small size of Instagram images works for an artist whose pieces can fill up a seven-square-foot canvas. “Art has to take you off guard somehow, so I’m glad there’s at least some difference between seeing it online and seeing it in person,” she said.
After seeing 10 years of her work in Virginia Beach, it seemed natural to ask her about the next ten. “The next ten years are going to be with enamel,” she said. “I’ve learned how to make it more three-dimensional. I feel like I’ve gotten better at blending the two worlds together. I found what I was looking for, and I’ve brought it back.”