Their beauty is undeniable, the fluidity of form and motion breathtaking. The paintings of Inka Essenhigh(MFA 1994 Fine Arts) resonate with overwhelming power and grace while possessing an otherworldly charm and distinctive voice. Everything is animated in Essenhigh’s world: normally stationary objects move and interact; figures pulsate and contort into one another. Her work inhabits a brightly colored landscape of shapes and distortions.
In her latest series of paintings, which appear here, Essenhigh mines the beauty and stillness of cemeteries and the dynamics of trees. “If I go to a forest, I see groupings of trees and I see gangs. I see them pushing at each other,” she says. “There are actually big dramas going on in nature all the time in a slow-motion kind of way, and it’s fun to anthropomorphize that.”
It is up to the viewer to decide whether the tension in these paintings is playful or sinister. Essenhigh relishes her work’s ambiguity—it mirrors the indescribable but powerful effect that a particular landscape or place can have on a visitor. “It’s got a particular vibe or charge to it, and you are changed from it, even if you can’t spell it out,” she says.
After a few years of working mostly with oil paint—largely for its ability, she says, to capture light and communicate space—she recently went back to making her signature enamel paintings. Although enamel paint doesn’t have the richness or depth of oils, she says it enables her to explore a larger, brighter color palette. “I like to sit down and wait for the colors to come to me,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t quite find it in my head, and I’ll just start mixing colors and I’ll find it when I see it.” Such experimentation is what allows her to move beyond the traditional color tropes and bring a stained glass-like quality to her most recent paintings.
A commonality behind all of Essenhigh’s work is her lively imagination. Though her observation of real places loosely inspires her, she paints without any references on hand. Freed from the limitations imposed by “the real world,” she is able to pursue truly original forms. “Why can’t it be something from your mind that you haven’t seen or heard of yet?” she says. “Why not give that a fighting chance? I want more of that in the world—something special.”
Essenhigh’s work is concerned not just with aesthetics, but the power of one’s own thoughts. “I believe you can change the world with beauty, that it is a political statement,” she says. “If you were to imagine peace on earth, what would you imagine it look and feel like? Why not go ahead and make the world you want to live in, and believe that that kind of consciousness will affect other people?”