Publication: The Sunday Herald
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
One of the difficulties facing any audience of New York-based artist Inka Essenhigh’s painting is finding a suitable inroad into the work. Deciphering it (both thematically and stylistically) is tough – not because of any shortage of clues of information but, rather, because of the reverse. Commentators freely make reference her work as being a hybrid of styles, from high and low culture, east and west, ancient and modern, citing such diverse sources as the European Renaissance and Japanese ‘manga’ – cartoon and comic strip illustrations. With additional references to Blade Runner, Dalí, Pop Art, Surrealism, Francis Bacon and it begins to seem as if there’s hardly a source of visual culture which hasn’t shaped Essenhigh’s work in some way or other.
Because Essenhigh’s visual idiom can appear so new and different, it is possible to genuinely puzzle over these works while teasing out a meaning. Essenhigh herself (in a interview made specially for her Fruitmarket show) is illuminating and obfuscating about her work in roughly equal measure. She claims, for example, that the paintings are no more or no less than what they appear to be – which is an almost useless explication. But then she pointedly takes her audience through several of the works, pointing out their narrative. Once this ‘key’ is given, the puzzling, elusive imagery begins to reveal itself via processes which are paradoxically complex yet simple. Essenhigh’s point of departure can be autobiographical and everyday, as in ‘Sudden Arrival of Morning’ which catalogues the daily ritual of getting out of bed and dressing.
What makes Essenhigh’s works unusual is that they combine narrative sequences into single, coherent images often in a temporal amalgam (unlike conventional comic strips where events unfold through a series of discrete images). The eye, therefore, follows these morphing sequences and characters through a series of lines which often literally connect events and characters. While they may have specific meanings for the artist they are abstract and ambiguous enough to allow a breadth of interpretation. Although the paintings are intensely worked, usually starting from a highly polished ground, and finished in great detail, they reveal a spontaneity in their creation allowing the artist’s imaginative leaps and turns to be followed in a kind of dreamlike order.
Taking its title from an implicit reference to the Glasgow Girls phenomenon described by Jude Birkhauser over a decade ago the work in the Stirling Girls show has been roughly divided into two chronological periods and although the contemporary section has now closed, works by Anne Redpath, Thomas Faed, Victoria Crowe and Marjorie Campbell amongst others still offer a considerable attraction.
The fact that some of these artists had little to do with Stirling, and are also, disconcertingly - given the show’s title - men, adds to a sense of confusion. It also points up the relative scarcity of women artists who lived and worked in the town.
But its still possible to enjoy the characteristic vibrancy of Redpath’s flowers in their Breton vase and to experience the very real skill of Faed, whose ‘Maternal Joy’ painted in the mid-nineteenth century is a small, if sentimental, masterpiece of genre painting. Campbell’s lost looking child and Crowe’s landscape of hills and fencing in the Pentlands are also valuable works which shine out despite, rather than because of, the way they are displayed.