Inka Essenhigh, "New Paintings," Jan. 7-Feb 13, 1999, at Deitch Projects, 76 Grand Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
Inka Essenhigh describes the evil-minded little cartoon humanoids she paints quite abstractly. They "mimic the future," she says, a future "made of a plastic material that won't decompose." Using colors the way a package designer would, Essenhigh confects multiple views of chaos and disaster through acid hues and hard enamel surfaces that look as if they've been extruded. These thick, congealed backgrounds are romper rooms for heavily stylized, contorted figures, catastrophes rushing at full tilt towards violent, nightmarish and candy-colored climaxes. The results are as eye-catching as the Teletubbies.
Essenhigh's multiply layered and brightly colored visions bring to mind a host of other art, from Tin Tin to Francis Bacon to Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. There are echoes, too, of Duchamp's chocolate grinder, the general subversive bead of the Surrealists and Roberto Matta's anthropomorphic spaceship aliens. But more than anything, Essenhigh's tripping, schematic characters (because of their molded look one is tempted to call them figurines) appear as peculiarly fitting pixies for the virtual age. Essenhigh's paintings are very much derived from our media-driven millennial obsessions, among them, faceless terrorism, alienated religious cults and the Y2-K problem.
The mockingly titled Public Spirit shows a group of figures cavorting on a rubbery olive green, khaki and flesh-painted canvas. In the painting, Essenhigh's squishy anatomies simultaneously withdraw and flare, their burly and gaunt characters avoiding gunsights and hayseed cornhusks, while proudly sporting beer bellies, twisted rifle barrels and a Popeye tattoo in the form of a swirling anchor.
Cosmos, another nearly plastified canvas, pictures a comet plunging down upon a cul de sac of wilting palms. Two of Essenhigh's Mugwumps play grab and tickle while gyrating the body of some pit-roasted cyberbeast. Other paintings, like Virgin and Volcano, a collection of featureless and rubicund Venuses being sucked along with their suitors into a drain, and End of the World, a sparse composition that features several horsey forms pulling away from a common center, clue one into Essenhigh's brand of warped and calamitous fun. Like a present-day Hieronymus Bosch she seems determined to come up with one after another lively vision of a slick-colored nightmare.
But while the temptation exists to make allegories of these pictures, the facelessness of the twisting flesh gives one pause. Because the world she depicts is anonymous, the catastrophic amorality of Essenhigh's canvases appears ominous though particularly harmless in its ultimate representations. What matters in Essenhigh's pictures are not so much the disporting organisms that might or might not be Bosnian Serb troops, but the weight of the formal elements she commands to do her painterly bidding -- her use of four or five darkish colors per canvas, the deftness of her Surrealist-inspired automatic drawing and her minimalist compositions that make much of what is, upon examination, relatively little in the way of formal elements.