Entering the Labyrinth, Tema Celeste, Barry Schwabsky, 2003
Entering the Labyrinth
Following the thread of Inka Essenhigh’s investigation of mythology, mass culture, and metaphor.
I don’t know Inka Essenhigh personally, but there was always something that scared me a bit in the idea of her I drew from looking at the paintings. Not anymore. Her work has become riskier, or risky in a different way. She comes off as less sure of herself, more awkward and self-questioning. I’ll admit I like sensing that vulnerability. Does that make me cruel? The paintings themselves, so immersed in questions about the relation between pleasure and cruelty, seem to whisper that question in my ear. They whisper an answer too: “You’re too innocent to be cruel,” they assure. “But just follow us, we know so much more about it than you do.” I was ready to believe in the knowingness of Essenhigh’s earlier work but now I don’t think so. These new paintings still know an awful lot- they are still the work of a prodigy, though one who’s now all of thirty-three years old- but they also make it clear that she is on a learning curve like anyone else. Now the thrill of the work seems to reside less in how far she’s already gone than in how far she might be able to go - if she can hold onto her thread. The most obvious sign of the change in Essenhigh’s work is a shift in her choice of materials. Until recently, she was primarily painting in enamel, but now she’s working with oil paint. You might call it going forward by working back- from a cold, artificial, relatively non-aesthetic and therefore implicitly contemporary medium to one that is inherently warmer, more organic, and reeks of tradition, thereby risking a fall into baurality. Seeing an early paint like Yellow Turkeys (1998) shown along with new work in her recent exhibitions was a good reminder of just how drastic the change has been. Painted in a flat, airless, opaque manner, the artist used a bold, graphically linear style to define mostly large, always uninflected color areas to give the painting an almost [Matissean ?] sense of decorativeness at intriguing odds with its bizarre subject matter. Although this early work feels spare and almost raw in the context of Essenhigh’s much lusher new paintings, and while it is relatively small compared to what she is doing now, its increased scale is rather grand. Despite the nearly absolute lack of depth in any traditional sense, the painting feels quite spacious. The exhibition in London, selected from Essenhigh’s work of the past two years, showed the transition in process and indicated that her change of medium was not the cause but rather the result of a development in her concept of pictorial space. In the paintings dated 2001, such as White Rain, in which the artist was still using enamel, she was already reaching for space for greater plasticity. Here Essenhigh’s mutant figure no longer play out their aberrant rituals within a hard, flat monochromatic [surreal ?] like the one in Yellow Turkeys- now the ground is articulated in several colored bands, sometimes with strong outlines, not unlike the figures themselves, so that the space has become more complicated, even though it is still being defined by essentially graphic means. By the time she painted WWF, also dated 2001 but presumably from later in the year, Essenhigh was working entirely in oil but still using it pretty much the way she’d used the enamel in White Rain: zones of flatly painted color creating space - in this case with a rotary structure reminiscent of a baroque or rococo dame in which the figures look down from the edges- graphically. The current phase of Essenhigh’s work emerges in her paintings of 2002, also painted in oil rather than enamel. The transformation of the space that was emerging gradually in White Rain or WWF is fully confirmed in a painting like Mod & Minotaur . The uninflected monochromatic ground that had turned into a more complex structure of multiple uninflected monochromatic zones [at] twisting hands has now become a full-bodied space defined by none, by chiaroscuro, as well as by drawing. From the beginning, Essenhigh has been such an interesting colorist that it was never as obvious as it should have been that her paintings were fundamentally conceived as drawings. Now that she is developing the more traditionally painterly dimension of her work it is possible to see the two coming into conflict. Essenhigh’s handling of oil paint looks surprisingly diligent, if not demure- in any case somewhat inhibited in comparisons with the self-conscious wilderness of their imagery, though perhaps charmingly so. And yet the relative lack of integration between the painterly and linear aspects of Essenhigh’s style is also something she can use to good stylistic effect. One of the strengths of the new paintings is precisely that they resemble classical representation much less than they do some mass-cultural derivative of classical painting. If anything, they might be [cels/ rels?] from animated movies- though one might hesitate to show the feature presentation to the kiddies. What hasn’t changed much is the nature of Essenhigh’s imagery- not quite legible, sci fi scenarios acted out by mutant anthropomorphic blobs in uniform- as critic Jane Harris memorably put it in the recent book Vitimin P: New Perspectives in Painting “amorphous taffy forms that fold, droop, and slide across her shiny monochrome seas” and “wear scuba-diving equipment, ride motorcycles, brandish brass knuckles, and fight against unseen forces, not the least of which is the gravitational pull of their own weight made more unwieldy by the suction of drains and other vortices.” (Essenhigh’s imagery has always been just specific enough yet just vague enough to provoke commentators to descriptive intensity verging [in] purple excess.) the development from an essentially ornamental style to one that is relatively naturalistic has entailed a change in the figure’s scale: Where they were once minute in comparison to the pictorial fields across which they struggled, but numerous and essentially interchangeable, they now tend to fill a greater portion of the canvas, being depicted in great detail and thereby becoming at once more particularized and more ambiguous seen so near, their forms lose the definition they might have seemed to have from a distance. Or, inversely, as in the “marine” painting Blue Wave, the figure has nearly merged with its setting, which has itself become the main event. In all these paintings, curiously, the space has depth but the surfaces that define it have none- the sea, for instance, appears as a sort of metallic sheet beaten into wavelike patterns; elsewhere, the walls of a room give the impression of having no “other side”, just as the bodies they contain are shapes without substance. I’m even tempted to say that Essenhigh’s imagery is becoming less credible as it becomes at once more varied and more specifi. The product of her draftsmanship, which is now becoming less important to the work as the more specifically painterly qualities of color and touch came more into focus, the imagery’s arbitrariness has become more striking. Which is perhaps why she is now experimenting with images that refer, in however oblique a fashion, to a familiar mythological theme- the story of the Minotaur, the half-human, half-bovine monster slain by the hero Theseus, who with the help of Ariadne was able to find his way out of the labyrinth the creature inhabited by trailing a thread behind him as he proceeded. The confusion of species exemplified by the Minotaur has long been a staple of Essenhigh’s imagination but her creatures always seem to act almost mechanically, without feeling. This is the first time she has shown them as either experiencing fear (in Mob & Minotaur) or causing it (in Arrows and Fear). The cool of the earlier paintings is gone. Now the confusion of identity goes far deeper, almost as it does in the following parable by the Italian writer Ennio Flaiano: “Theseus enters the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur,” wrote Flaiano in his Diario degli errori, “He finds no one- goes forward, back: no one. Suddenly he realizes that the Minotaur is himself. He touches his head and feels the horns. Fur, paws. Full of terror because he knows that Theseus is looking for him, has entered the labyrinth to kill him. Confused flight of the Minotaur-Theseaus. He hangs his head, trips, falls down, gets up out of breath. He sees Ariadne, Oh, Ariadne, ma [socar]! - But there’s Ariadne: with her thread in one hand and a sword in the other, ready to kill him.” Yes, painting is a labyrinth, and Essenhigh seems to be drawing nearer to its center. But will her line lead her back out, and with what identity?