Inka Essenhigh USA, b. 1969


Inka Essenhigh is among the most influential and celebrated painters working today. Her masterly, dreamlike paintings translate her encounters with, and intuitions about, contemporary society into haunting, playful, sometimes disturbing visual scenes.


Essenhigh is part of a generation of artists that includes Rachel Feinstein, Lisa Yuskavage and Cecily Brown, that rose to prominence in 1990s New York as leaders in the contemporary return to figuration.


Employing a mix of automatism, imagination and “inner vision,” Essenhigh translates the visible world into arabesque compositions that suggest unseen worlds of energy, feeling and mystery lurking just beyond the surface of everyday life. These imaginative and highly abstracted landscapes invite viewers to temporarily abscond from the corporeal realm into a world of symbolism and mystery.


Says Essenhigh, “The unknown comes from the painting process, putting brush to canvas. I do have an agenda, and a world I want to create. I’m not interested in meaninglessness. But I am looking for the feeling that the images are coming to me.”


Essenhigh sometimes engages with existing myths, fairy tales and fables, and sometimes invents her own. For example, the painting Daphne and Apollo (2012), inspired by the eponymous Greek myth, seizes the climatic, moonlit scene when the nymph Daphne, pursued by an aroused Apollo, is transformed into a tree after a desperate appeal to her father, the river god Peneus.


Summer Landscape (2013) meanwhile has new stories to tell as magical sprites inter-twine chameleon-like with plants and vines along an undulating, luminescent horizon. Segmented into three panels and painted on paper, its subject matter and golden hues bring to mind perhaps a 16th century Byōbu, ethereally placing the narrative simultaneously in the past and present.


Essenhigh’s most recent series, titled Uchronia, envisages a hypothetical, idyllic future for the inhabitants of Earth. Centering scenes set across the centuries, this body of work traces humanity’s evolution from a species at odds with its ecosystem to one that has resolved its conflicts with the natural world.


Recent exhibitions of Essenhigh's work include Disruption: Works from the Vicki and Kent Logan Collection, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, USA; Inka Essenhigh: Uchronia, Kavi Gupta, Chicago, USA; Inka Essnhigh: Other Worlds, Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, PA; SIte Specific Installation, Drawing Center, New York, USA; Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds, Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN, USA Inka Essenhigh: A fine line, Virginia MOCA, Virginia Beach, VA, USA; Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, MOMA, New York, USA; USA Today, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London, England; 2nd Berlin Biennale, Berlin, DE; Supernova, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA, USA; Hybrids, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, England and Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brazil. Work by Essenhigh is in the collections of the Tate, the Denver Art Museum, MOMA / P.S.1, San Francisco MOMA, the Seattle Art Museums, and many others.