Rich tales of Inka Essenhigh

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Inka Essenhigh’s earlier body of work fused a personal take on Surrealism with motifs that seem borrowed from animation. Works such as “Mob + Minotaur” (2002), with such strong anime and manga characteristics, had some critics refer to it as a kind of pop-Surrealism or Japanimation.

Her recent body of work, however, is of a very different type. “The Natural and the Man-Made” could be defined as spiritual — it’s not essentialist and is without doctrines. Gone are the bodybuilders and morphing monsters of her earlier visual vocabulary, and out come the spirits of the visionary and the romantic — a nod to the 18th-century English painter and poet, William Blake.

Essenhigh paints whatever comes into her head on the day. She attempts to work from vague feelings rather than concepts, and her pieces appear to offer an escapism that provides her with a little relief from the world. The gist of the exhibition, which includes five large paintings and four monotypes, is a portrayal of the progression from nature to the city.

“Stubborn Tree Spirit” (2012) depicts an infantile spirit-figure dancing on the stump of a fallen tree, its body emitting a brilliant yellow light in the darkness. While the tree is now dead, its spirit refuses to take the same course. The largest work, “Late August” (2012), takes its inspiration from the Roman mural “Frescoed Wall Painting from the House of Livia,” which dates back to the 1st century B.C. The fresco was a way to bring nature into the living quarters, and here Essenhigh continues that tradition with a bountiful scene of fruiting trees, thick vegetation, butterflies and the inclusion of man-made objects such as a birdbath.

In “The Frond” (2012), in which a baby is cupped in the leaves of a plant-like figure, we see nature nurturing mankind. It’s a part-sentimental motif from the artist, who recently gave birth to a son. “The Woodsman” (2012), on the other hand, shows how mankind seemingly puts nature to its own uses. The title hints at an almost idyllic, romantic idea of man and nature, but instead of an ax, the tree-cutter, attired in acid-colored overalls, wields a morphing chainsaw blade that seems to spit out an almost poisonous energy. Having felled his tree he walks away, but the same brilliant yellow spirit found in “Stubborn Tree Spirit” reappears to dance on the stump as if nothing is to be lamented.

The final work in the series, “Manhattan” (2012), represents the island borough of New York, which is embraced by two arms of water that wrap around soaring office buildings that become crystal-like. These enclose glimmering embers of light and energy, and two figures that almost ape the forms of Greek and Roman sculpture look in on the glowing heart of the city. Rather than offering cliches of spiritual nature and irreverent cities, Essenhigh discovers something of the divine across the spectrum of her progression from one to the other.

“The Natural and the Man-Made” at Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till April 7; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon. and Sun.

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