Interview with Inka Essenhigh: "The world is big and time is short”

Essenhigh talks about her switch from enamel to oil, the difficulties of making pretty pictures and the ominous undertow of her paintings


Inka Essenhigh rocketed into the spotlight as a conspicuous member of the much trumpeted band of young New York painters—including Cecily Brown, Damien Loeb, Matthew Ritchie, Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin—who, although frequently grouped together as some kind of new wave, in fact have little in common apart from good looks and a penchant for pigment.

Essenhigh certainly has both of the above in abundance: her strange, smoothly executed paintings with their cast of oddly animated beings have been whipping critics and collectors into a high state of excitement, while she herself has also been racking up column inches in all the best glossies.

After an early association with the famously bullish Mary Boone ended in acrimonious breakup, Essenhigh is now happily ensconced with Chelsea’s 303 Gallery. While this side of the Atlantic she continues to enjoy a harmonious association with Victoria Miro, who first showed her in 2000.

Her current show of new work at Wharf Road finds Essenhigh working for the first time in oil paint rather than her trademark enamel, and the change seems to be a popular one; the work was all sold before the exhibition had even opened.

The Art Newspaper: The new paintings are still full of high-octane action, with various peculiar personages engaged in frantic activity and/or swept up in cataclysmic events. But instead of being arranged across backgrounds of flat colour, the action now unfolds within more specific scenarios: rooms, oceans, arenas: there’s a more perspectival feel to them.

Inka Essenhigh: Yes, they are becoming much more three-dimensional in their placement. I think that it just happened with the oil painting. You change medium and you just get out more ideas, your brain goes in a different direction...

TAN: The earlier work looked much more emblematic.

IE: I think that was coming out of me still being scared of painting. But that’s looking back on it; I would never have said so at the time...

TAN: What scared you about painting? The cultural baggage of it all?

IE: I suppose so. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I guess it’s just a desire to be avant-garde...I suppose I like painting so reach a point where you worry that “Oh I really like to do this but other people say it’s dead so maybe I’m just fooling myself, and it’s not very useful at all”—There’s just a lot of doubt...

TAN: Overall, the latest work appears more coherent and less fragmented; now there is one main event taking place rather than several smaller ones.

IE: It’s so hard to know when you’re making a decision what exactly you are doing: why you’re changing one thing and moving it over to the left, or putting in more of a background colour. It’s nothing so conscious. I feel like I’ve gone from when you have a two-dimensional pattern, which is like a little world with all these little people squirming around, to more clarity. Lately I’ve wanted just one face to come out: not literally a face but one psychology to come out of the morass...

TAN: But having said that, you have also given faces to the figures in these new paintings, whereas in the past they tended to be headless. In an earlier interview you said that faces tended to give away too much information and result in over-literal readings, but now you have taken that risk. Why?

IE: For some reason it does feel risky. I suppose the emotion seems to be at such a fever pitch, and you don’t have the cool irony of the enamel, and so adding the face and having something that’s a little bit animated is as if I’m beating life into it... I don’t know if I’m successful or not, but I’m asking the viewer not to look at these as ironic paintings; they aren’t meant to be.

I can see that the emotion is over the top but I am actually trying to make something real, even if it is so loud that you can barely hear it. I guess I want there to be some sort of presence in the room.

TAN: And now they have more of a narrative: there are people fleeing from a Minotaur, galumphing women wrestlers, a hurtling Pegasus.

IE: I don’t want them to be stories as such, that you’re looking at a picture of an event.

I mean, you look at a Rubens’s Saturn eating his child, or whatever—there are all sorts of good images out there and the whole point about painting is that you could make whatever image you want.

TAN: Several critics have talked about your imagery in mechanical and cybernetic terms, but to me your paintings have much more to do with Surrealism, in the fluid Hans Bellmer-ish style of your drawing, their fantastic dream-like atmosphere and in their depiction of psychological extremes.

IE: People ask me, what do you think of cyborgs? And I have nothing to say on cyborgs! I never intended them to be like that; I always intended it to be like a psychological or emotional state. But of course it’s all in there: Disney, Warner Brothers, Japanese animation, Surrealism. I think of myself as a little bit closer to something like James Ensor, even though he’s not my favourite painter by a long shot, but in terms of his expressiveness and social parody—a sort of Symbolism—and his wacky imagination.

TAN: Beneath all the smooth surfaces and exaggerated activity of your paintings there always seems to be an ominous undertow.

IE: I have always wished I was a painter like Matisse, who would actually bring a little bit of joy. A few months ago I tried to make a pretty pink flower painting—literally. And I sat there, and I made my pink flowers, and it just didn’t sit right with me. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just make it into a little bit of a greener flower,’ and pretty soon something else comes out where I want to take that pink flower, burn it, and all of a sudden there’s all these spikey green branches and this black background with mutant goats running around...Even though I can have the intention, something else just comes out...

TAN: What, ideally, would you want your work to communicate?

IE: Ultimately, the best I think that art can do is to remind you that the world is big and time is short...


Born 1969 in Belfonte, Pennsylvania

Currently showing at Victoria Miro Selected solo exhibitions

2002: 303 Gallery, New York.

2001: Works on paper, Victoria Miro Gallery (Project Room), London; Works on paper, Mary Boone Gallery, New York; 2000: Victoria Miro Gallery, London; Mary Boone Gallery, New York;

1999-2000: Deitch Projects, New York; New Room of Contemporary Art, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

1998: Stefan Stux Gallery, New York

1997: La Mama La Galleria, New York