“Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds” May 27–October 9, 2016
Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds, on view in the Frist Center for the Visual Arts’ Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery from May 27 to October 9, 2016, features paintings and prints created over the past decade that connect dreamlike visions steeped in mysticism with allusions to twenty-first-century reality. Evoking a wide range of folklore and allegorical traditions as well as surrealist approaches to tapping into the unconscious, Essenhigh’s work both delights and challenges viewers’ understanding of how nature and humanity, as well as time and distance, are entwined.
Born in 1969, Inka Essenhigh earned her BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her paintings have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Her works are in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Art Museum, Tate Modern, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Essenhigh was included in the Frist Center’s 2012 presentation of Fairy Tales, Monsters, and the Genetic Imagination, which featured contemporary artists who invent humanlike, animal, or hybrid creatures to symbolize life’s mysteries, desires, and fears. Addressing the recurring sense of duality in Between Worlds, Chief Curator Mark Scala notes, “In these paintings, boundaries are melted: interior becomes exterior; solid becomes fluid; the sensual overlaps with the absurd; plant becomes human; clarity and mystery coexist.”
Woodland gods of classical antiquity, such as Pan and Diana, are present in some paintings; in others, witches, tree spirits, water nymphs, and elves hearken back to Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, or Norse folk traditions. “These mythical beings appear along with quirky phantasms of her own devising,” says Scala. “All these characters are bound to landscapes that are redolent of animism and metamorphosis: rocks, trees, water, and even pavement pulse with energy.”
Essenhigh’s works have a stylistic kinship with fantastic literary illustrations, from late nineteenth-century fairy and goblin drawings by Arthur Rackham to twentieth-century masterpieces by Walt Disney such as Fantasia and Snow White. Yet beneath the whimsical flourishes and the lush, warm color palette of her painted environments are powerful psychological undercurrents that echo the work of painters such as El Greco, Thomas Hart Benton, and Salvador Dali. “These predecessors anticipated her own imagery, which seems at once coherent and inexplicable,” says Scala. “Essenhigh’s narratives are burned onto the canvas like the most decisive moment of a dream, which may remain in our memory long after we wake.”
Moreover, the body of work in this exhibition reflects her time spent between lower Manhattan—where Essenhigh lives for most of the year—and a family home in rural Maine. The anxiety triggered by inner-city living that is present in the paintings In Bed (2005), Spring Bar Scene (2008), and City Street (2013) contrasts with the tranquility of Essenhigh’s works set in the countryside. She finds inspiration in the beauty of nature and power of the seasons, and the treatment of the forest as a sentient organism pervades a group of works that include Green Goddess II (2009) and the triptych Summer Landscape (2013), which show wood spirits floating and prancing through field and forest, blissfully unaware of human existence. The Woodsman (2012) brings humanity and an accompanying sense of disruption into the picture. It shows a man with a chainsaw near a freshly cut tree, from which emerges a glowing tree spirit. The viewer is left to question whether the spirit is happily escaping its shell or intending to retaliate.
“We may consider her paintings in relation to our memories, cultural traditions, and beliefs,” says Scala. “Or, entranced by their beauty and sense of wonder, we might simply return to a time in our own lives when sensations were allowed to stir the inner world without reason or explanation.”
Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and supported in part by the Friends of Contemporary Art, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Friday, May 27
Gallery Talk: Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds presented by Inka Essenhigh and Mark Scala, chief curator, Frist Center
Noon. Meet in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery. Admission required; members free
Inspired by surrealism, Inka Essenhigh’s paintings unleash the beauty of unconscious desires and the lucid dreams of both individuals and culture. In her world, boundaries are melted: interior becomes exterior, solid becomes fluid, sensual overlaps with absurd, humans take the forms of plants and clouds, clarity and mystery coexist. In this hourlong gallery talk, the artist will discuss her sources of inspiration and artistic process with chief curator Mark Scala.
Friday, June 17
Art After Dark: Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds presented by Ginny Soenksen, assistant curator of interpretation, Frist Center
Meet at exhibition entrance
Admission required; members free
Reservations recommended, but not required; register at fristcenter.org/talk. Questions? Call 615.744.3355.
Enrich your Friday nights. Join in an open-ended discussion in the galleries to heighten your appreciation and understanding of the visual arts by exploring in depth one work of art from Inka Essenhigh: Between Worlds with an educator. The chosen object changes every session, making each Art After Dark a new experience. Space is limited to 15 participants to encourage interaction.
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Center offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in a program of changing exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. The Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Center exhibitions.
Information on accessibility may be found at www.fristcenter.org/accessibility. Gallery admission is free for visitors 18 and younger and to members; $12 for adults; $9 for seniors and college students with ID; and $7 for active military. College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of Frist Fridays), 5:00–9:00 p.m. Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation by calling 615.744.3247. The galleries, Café, and Gift Shop are open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.; and Sundays, 1:00–5:30 p.m., with the Café opening at noon. Additional information is available by calling 615.244.3340 or by visiting www.fristcenter.org.