Unreal Realism

It's fitting that the young American artist Inka Essenhigh has a series of paintings called "People that do weird things to their bodies," because the artist herself, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1969, does some extremely weird things to the bodies of the people in her pictures. To say...
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It's fitting that the young American artist Inka Essenhigh has a series of paintings called "People that do weird things to their bodies," because the artist herself, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1969, does some extremely weird things to the bodies of the people in her pictures.

To say that Essenhigh distorts these bodies is the understatement of the year. The artist elongates limbs almost beyond recognition, sending them spiraling off into space or coiling them into snaky masses. These "beings" retain traces of human anatomy -- a foot or hand jumps out at us here and there, and heads and faces often emerge from the dramatic swirls of pigment -- but it could also be argued that they are human only in a very expansive sense of the word. They could just as easily be from another planet.

Thirty works in oil, all painted in the past three years, make up the extraordinary show "Inka Essenhigh: Recent Paintings," one of two solo exhibitions now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami. It's a bit odd to see MoCA, a museum known for installations, video art, and multimedia works, filled with paintings, but as usual director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater has an unerring sense of what works together in the space she has at her disposal.

In an essay in the fine exhibition catalog, Clearwater declares that "Essenhigh's paintings are simultaneously representational and abstract," and that seemingly contradictory statement makes sense. Essenhigh's distortions take her imagery out of the realm of realism without going all the way into abstract expressionism.

Clearwater also cites Honoré Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mark Rothko, and Japanese printmakers among Essenhigh's influences. But nowhere is there any reference to two of my favorite painters, Francis Bacon and Roberto Matta, with whom Essenhigh has affinities that I think are undeniable. Like Bacon, she often relies on flat, monochromatic backgrounds and, more important, visits horrific transformations on her subjects. The vaguely sinister figures populating Power Party, for instance, are cousins to the distorted people in Bacon's portraits. They're painted in more muted tones, but they also cast nebulous shadows similar to the ones in Bacon's work.

Granted, Essenhigh's emphasis on narrative puts her at odds with Bacon's fierce resistance to storytelling. With Kate Dancing, Essenhigh uses distended limbs and trailing tresses of hair to suggest the title character at various stages of her frenzied dance, made more expressive by an unusually bright palette of reds and salmony pinks. Even so, these manifestations of Kate include a strong whiff of Bacon's portraiture as well.

Variants of some of the unsettling alien forms favored by Matta insinuate themselves into Essenhigh's work. In Mob + Minotaur, the minotaur is a writhing mass of limbs and waving horns and other features, including a melting eyeball that could have come straight out of a Matta painting. Similarly, the mob echoes Matta's aliens, especially the large one wielding what looks like a hockey stick made of flesh. And in Romantic Pairing, in which the lovers seem to have morphed into each other, Matta might as well be waiting in the wings, supervising the intertwining couple's amorous embrace.

After working with enamel early in her career, Essenhigh switched to oil a few years ago. About half of the pieces in this show are on canvas or panel, with another pair (Straight to Hell and the aforementioned Power Party) on linen. The rest are in oil on paper, and Essenhigh uses this tricky mixture to create a medium that falls somewhere between painting and drawing. She explores the possibilities of this medium in a series of untitled, near-monochromatic pieces.

But it's in the two works here from her "People that do weird things to their bodies" series that Essenhigh reaches delirious heights. Wrestler features the title character as seen from above, his large hands spread menacingly, his legs planted firmly, his semblance of a head surrounded by what look to be medals swinging around his neck. It's all rendered with fine lines more characteristic of drawing than painting. (It's also worlds away from the more fully fleshed-out wrestlers of her oil on canvas WWF, which gets its power from a thick fleshiness.)

Essenhigh goes even further with Beauty, a portrait of a woman who's anything but a beauty. She tries mightily, however, applying dye to her hair and waxing the hair of her upper thighs and underarms. (Arrows helpfully point out the directions in which the wax strips should be pulled, à la those infamous pointers in Bacon paintings.) Absurdly long eyelashes adorn her eyes, and a disembodied brush appears to be painting the toes of her thick, mannish feet, attached to hairy, muscular legs. A tube attached to her buttocks could be construed as either blowing air into an artificial woman or sucking fat from her backside. Finally, her upturned breasts boast seams, suggesting, of course, that they're "enhanced."

It's a startling image, one that speaks volumes about the whole range of Essenhigh's aesthetic concerns.

Clearwater has paired Essenhigh's startling show with an exhibition called "Richard Artschwager: 'Painting' Then and Now." The works of this elder-generation artist, who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1923, are a cool contrast to Essenhigh's fiery-hot imagery.

Artschwager turned to art in 1947 after military service in Europe during and after World War II, and he has experimented with a variety of media during the course of his long career, including works that combine painting with sculpture. A great deal of his work is based on photographs, especially newspaper photos, that he reinterprets in paint.

Polish Rider I (1970-71) and Polish Rider III (1971), for instance, are elegant dining-room and living-room scenes, respectively, that echo photographs from interior design magazines. (The cryptic titles allude to a Rembrandt painting of a man on horseback.) The panels in Three Women (1963) play off newspaper photos of models on the runway at a fashion show.

Artschwager's great innovation is the substitution of something called Celotex for canvas. In the show's catalog, Clearwater describes it as "a rigid compound board formed from sugarcane fiber." It provides a coarse-textured working surface that takes on a stippled look when Artschwager applies pigment, typically acrylic, to it, and it seems especially suited to the range of grays the artist likes to work with, resulting in imagery that's rough and slightly blurred, like an enlarged newspaper photograph.

That vaguely defined look contributes to the haunting Untitled (Fire), which portrays a skyscraper fire seen from street level. Artschwager painted it in 1988, but there's no way to look at it now without remembering that instant when the first jet crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It just goes to show that art can have ramifications that extend far beyond the circumstances of its creation. Unknowingly, Artschwager captured a turning point in the history of the world long before it actually took place.

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