Inka Essenghigh

Exhibition Visit at the Susquehanna Art Museum

City Blossom, 2014, oil on paper, two panels, 96” x 52” each

Other Worlds 

On view October 2019 – January 2020

Interview between Inka Essenhigh and Amy Boone-McCreesh at the Susquehanna Art Museum

To me your work exists between realism, fantasy, and sci-fi – are there cues you take from any of those worlds when constructing your own? 

I take my cues from both, I used to be more of an abstract painter, but I missed that old fashioned magic of being able to walk into an experience. I know that for Contemporary Art, the paint is the experience, but I always thought that was such a materialist thing. I actually missed that imaginative quality of being able to walk inside a painting. I’ve looked at Renoir paintings and thought it smelled like a beautiful summer day. It’s immersive and transportive. It’s considered not as interesting in Photography when you do that, but I still love that magic. When I was doing much more abstract works, I didn’t have anything in mind when I started. I just went along the logic of I would make one thing and react to it. It was an automatic process. At one point I decided to imagine the world you’d want to be in. A lot of times when I’m just going along with abstract work, I come up with stuff I don’t necessarily like or something awful comes out, and I say, Oh that’s the world I live in–things are bad out there and I’m realistic. So instead, I decided I was missing out on this whole other power of being able to form the world I wanted, because as artists, we can do that. We can actually start to move those ideas along and say, What do you want out of your world and experience?

Dawn’s Early Light, detail, 2019

Now when I make a painting, I start off with a sensation I can focus on. For example, the dawn. What does dawn feel like? Or a beautiful afternoon? A fall day? That’s the experience, so for me to make that experience, it needs to be real enough for me to talk about that experience. But it doesn’t have to be that real.

Dawn’s Early Light, detail, 2019

I so often use your work when teaching about color – you are so effective in creating convincing space, depth and visual interest without being too jarring – how much is planned vs. intuitive?

Inka Essenhigh, Grey Men, 2015, enamel on dibond, 55” x 47”
Grey Men, 2015, Enamel on dibond, 55 x 47 inches

Aren’t the two the same? I go back to the experience – whatever the experience calls for. This is a good experiment with students; I’m going to give you an experience like a childhood memory and what colors would you use? What does sunshine feel like? What does the school yard smell like – what’s it’s color scheme. I go along like that.

Sometimes I’ll make an all blue painting and I’ll leave it. Other times I think it’s boring and I’ll add orange. Depth in color is easier to do with enamel than with oil. With oil paint, there’s no system when you’re painting out of your head as opposed to painting from life. Because I went back and forth between reality and fantasy,  it would get very confusing. But with enamel, I can start off very abstract, so I can start with all red, then add a blotch of purple here, and blue there. And then I can make it into a three dimensional thing, but the local color stays. Whereas oil paint is much harder to keep one color and then carve into it with other colors to create depth. You can’t work that way. You have to know what you’re going to do before because it will get muddy. But with enamel you can work with those delineating colors. I’ve worked with enamel since graduate school, I’ve always liked enamel. I worked with it from about 1996 through 2001, and then I made the transition to oil paint and stayed with that for about ten years. A lot of what’s in this show is the first transition back to enamel. As much as I’m into these walk-in spaces, I was missing that graphic punch. I liked the contemporary look of enamel. With oil paint, I’m dragging around a lot of weight. I think the weight, especially with pseudo-spiritual content, is a turn off for a lot of people. And I’m here to communicate. How can I say what I want to say without people blaming the viewer? We don’t live in those avant garde times. I’m trying to be useful and pro-people looking at my work!

Thistle, 2019, enamel on panel

Is there anything you do to maintain any sort of normalcy or momentum in your studio practice?

I don’t feel as though it’s a rollercoaster. Emotionally, it can be. The art world can be very tough. I would never want my son to be an artist because you have to put up with so much disappointment. The toughest thing about being an artist is that we don’t do anything that’s immediately useful. Even a garbage man gets to say, If it wasn’t for me you’d be living in garbage. And that’s important. You’re part of the community and you matter.

Inka Essenhigh, New Condos, 2016, enamel on panel, 60” x 65”
New Condos, 2016, Enamel on panel, 60 x 65 inches

Do we, as artists, really matter? Does anyone really care? The day to day texture of it is like-who cares? I don’t have a great way to keep going through that. I find it kind of absurd sometimes, except now I make a living off of it so now I’m pretty unemployable. After you’ve been making art in your studio for twenty years, you’re not ready for much more than that!

Inka Essenhigh, Fairy Procession, 2016, oil and enamel on panel, 78” x 80”
Fairy Procession, 2016, Oil and Enamel on Wood, 78 x 80 inches

When does the show close? Do you have any other programming at the SAM?

Lauren Nye (curator):

The show closes January 19th. We have programs like oil painting workshops coming up. Part of that will be going through the exhibit to talk about oil painting in Inka’s work. We have kid’s classes and tour groups based off of this work. Every group that books a tour gets their experience crafted by whatever is on exhibit. So if they’re interested in painting, we’d take them to Inka’s show and do an activity based on your show. These are age groups from pre-school up to seniors who are in an Alzheimer’s program. Our Education staff really tailors to each age group’s expertise and interest. 

Click here for more information on programming and education at the SAM

Susquehanna Art Museum, Exhibition View
Susquehanna Art Museum, Exhibition View
Inertia Studio Visits