Minotaurs and Unicorns and Terror, Oh My!

Bradley Rubenstein: Your work combines a very sophisticated design sense with an almost teenage-like conception of surrealism -- a smart mix, I think. I picture you as the kid in high school who painted murals in the hallways or did the best copies of album covers. Did you have an interest in art when you were younger? And is some of that what you draw on when you work now?

Inka Essenhigh: Actually, when I was in high school I’d already had a lot of art training and was way too self-conscious to make anything really interesting. I’d say my best, freest period making art was between the age of three and maybe eight. I do draw on that stuff.It was all narrative work. I’d make lots of story books. I would re-illustrate the entire Star Wars story; and make up friends and -- you know, because I had a little bit of a lonely childhood -- I’d make it into a book, the adventures of these people. It was a comic book-style thing. For example, my sister and I would have a houseboat, and the story would cover our life on the houseboat. It would be pure fantasy, illustrated for twenty or thirty pages. I’ve always been drawn to narrative stuff, and I do draw on that time period as being a really genuine time.

BR: One of the things I find most interesting about Francis Bacon’s paintings is he had an innately decorative sense of color -- especially his backgrounds -- in which I think his previous career as an interior designer shows. You can almost date the painting by what was the color of the period: black in the Fifties, orange and green in the Sixties, beige in the Eighties, and so on. Your sensibility is similar in a way. You use these shiny, Ralph Lauren colors as benign environments for your weirdies to play in. Where does this come from?

IE: Well, as far as color goes, I did fabric design for a year or two where I designed boy’s and men’s boxer shorts. It was cheap fabric for Sears and stuff, and they were always trying to break it down to the smallest number of colors possible. I do think it played a part in my subject matter and freed me up, because at that time I was making these abstract expressionist paintings. It was probably 1995 and I was very miserable, but I just kept doing them, and I wished they looked a little more contemporary. Then I was making this fabric design, and it just looked so much more interesting and much more about culture and the world I lived in. The One Shot paint I used gave the paintings a specific look. There always has to be a solid color, and it just sort of leads you down a certain path where it becomes easier to use. It’s just the way the color looks; it already looks like a robin’s egg blue rather than a cerulean blue. It’s solid so there’s no transparency; there’s no light. It’s all decorative, and that was part of the content of the work, that it was all this fake world, this design world where the weirdies, as you called them, were existing. But, yeah, it was all fake. It all looked like it was made out of plastic, but that is changing now. Some of it looks the same, but I have these arrangements where one color is the dominant color, and then there is the secondary color, which might not necessarily be its opposite, but one step closer to it. I like these off-colors; and I like grays and these muted tones, but now that I’ve gone to oil paint, it really does seem different. I can’t help but feel that people who think my paintings have really changed that much probably weren’t really looking at the work in the first place and didn’t see past the shininess. I don’t think it’s all that different; it’s just that the paint that changed.

BR: Let’s talk about this new stuff. How do you feel about it?

IE: I feel great. Next question! When I start doing something new for myself, it feels as though I’m not really making art, and that’s a good thing. When I see works of art in a gallery, I think of art as being not the part of the paint that covers up the raw emotion or whatever it is, but the part that funnels something -- whatever you are doing or feeling, or whatever experience you’re having. It funnels it through this system of what it is supposed to look like.

BR: Mediating?

IE: Mediating, right. And so when I first started the enamel paintings, it was fantastic because I was getting away from Abstract Expressionism, which is what I, at that time, thought art should look like. And these little cartoon guys would come up, and that was actually far closer to a more direct way to say what I wanted to say. I guess there is a time where, after a while, whatever becomes new just turns into what is expected of your work, and that’s when it is like arthritis in your bones, and it is time to change. Sometimes it can be great because, for a little while -- you know, when you are making your first new paintings, the first ones might not be the best ones, but you understand a little bit more about what you are doing, and then you can represent it. I believe that I’m making art for other people. I’d be really depressed if I had to go to my studio and say, I’m making it for me. I would, actually! I want it to be for an audience, and I don’t know who that audience is all the time. Right now it’s the New York art world. If they didn’t want me anymore, I would probably go and seek out a new audience. But right now I’m happy that I’m beginning a new body of work.

BR: This painting with the Minotaur...you said before that you were trying to depict this emotional state -- you called it “waves of terror.” This piece, to me, is maybe the best example of your taking something, your genuine idea or emotion, or something you experience, and asking yourself how to depict visually something that isn’t necessarily a visual thing -- terror. That seems like where the art comes in for you.

IE: That I am making art -- in a bad way or a good way?

BR: Art in a good way. I think that is what art does. Isn’t it where you have this stylization -- or finding a way to communicate to your audience? That’s ultimately the role of the painter. I think what you are doing now is adding layers on top of layers and approaching how you are depicting your subjects from a significantly altered position.

IE: Yeah, well, I do feel like -- when you said this is where the art comes in, when we were talking about the little red lines in this painting, where the people are trying to sort of dodge and miss the “waves of fear,” or “arrows of fear” is actually what I think of them as -- I feel that in some ways this is the dumbest and, at the same time, most sophisticated way I could paint it. It’s something I have done a lot, in depicting forces of nature or weather, energy, things like that. Everything ended up being a solid shape with the enamel paint, so I took things that were invisible and depicted them as shapes. I feel like it is kind of like Futurism in a way -- showing energy in a physical way. They do it in Warner Brothers cartoons all the time too, you know. Bugs Bunny will have this kind of thing...

BR: He’ll see stars when he gets hit with the anvil.

IE: Right!

BR: There are a lot of disparate visual elements here that I think successfully convey the story, which is kind of important because your paintings usually have this one simple subject -- fear, love, whatever -- that isn’t really that simple to depict.

IE: I do feel like there’s a certain amount here -- I’ve bitten off a pretty big chunk. How many multi-figured paintings do you see that aren’t complete cheese? This is complete cheese too, but you know, there are a lot of academic paintings out there.

BR: But these, in a way, are more theatrical, in a Star Wars-meets-Looney Tunes kind of way.

IE: Yeah, right, because I wouldn’t go to a gallery to see a lot of, you know, salon art.

BR: In a way, you are sort of reinventing that tradition though...Minotaurs, Moby Dick, vampires, and stuff. It’s old subject matter that you investigate by filtering it through your own personal experiences. So they end up being very contemporary because of that. But in a way, when I look at these, I really think it’s a kind of painting that people haven’t done in a long time.

IE: It is interesting. I think it took a long time for me to get here. I think that, you know, growing up I always cursed myself like any artist, “Gee, what are my experiences? Are they really large?” You know, even at an early age I was disappointed that I was so suburban. And I’m not talking about country; I mean the deep suburbs. There’s nothing romantic, it couldn’t be more safe by comparison to everywhere else in the world. And so how do you translate something as fake and coddled as that into having raw emotions where you can relate to a lot of different things? And the answer is, you can’t. That means you have a choice -- either you are going to make safe art or you are going to take chances. And I wanted to take chances. Here, I’ve depicted a terror scene, which I have never actually experienced before. But still I am giving myself permission -- through surrealism in a way -- by making the scene and in a way not meaning it, like it’s a dream. I feel I am slowly stripping away all the reasons for doing something you feel you have done but maybe haven’t experienced. There are lots of other people, like Kafka, who didn’t leave [move out of] his parents’ house; he spent his entire life living in their front room right near their bedroom. But nevertheless he can go ahead and say whatever he wants to say and go and travel wherever he wants to travel in his novels, and it is okay because his voice sounds sincere. It just does.

BR: I don’t think I would question the credentials of someone or where they came from necessarily if what they make is a compelling depiction.

IE: Right, if the voice is sincere, the picture is compelling. It took me a long time to let myself do this.

BR: One of the most successful portrayals of Vietnam, to me, is Apocalypse Now -- but it was basically written a hundred years ago, and the movie was directed by someone who had never been in the war. But isn’t that what you should be doing as an artist? You know, using a synthetic structure to get at a specific, authentic meaning or emotional experience? That is how I see these pictures working.

IE: To make it convincing, yeah. But it isn’t like the space is actually convincing. It is almost like you have to convince yourself it is okay.

BR: [Eyeing “Arrows of Fear”] As I look at this one, I’m drawn to the figure at the top.

IE: That guy. Yeah, you identify with him because he has tripped and fallen, and maybe this guy on the right will help him, but you aren’t sure -- you know, he’s not sure either. Is he going to get left behind? He’s in a seizure of terror -- you know, when you get so scared you can’t even run.

BR: Simple depiction, complex idea.

IE: Unartfully done!

BR: It reminds me of this sculpture I like in the Met of this man holding a flayed skin. It’s marble, but the way it’s modeled, it’s like the less information there is, the more it starts to look like skin -- flesh -- the more you can really put yourself into the artwork, imagine something. What do you think you have really arrived at now? You’ve been working on these for almost six months.

IE: I can’t tell really because I want to go in so many directions at once. I want to make them more three-dimensional. I also want them to be more raw. I can also see the line separating from the painting a little more. These are all instincts of mine. The things I want to depict will probably go in this direction. Looking at this painting [indicating “Optimistic Horse and Rider”], most of the emotion is coming from the direction of the hair. It’s knotting and flowing, and the whole thing is jumping out. That’s where you are meant to feel how optimistic this is.

BR: But the horse is sinking in the water.

IE: No! He is coming out of the rainbow behind! What are you talking about? He’s not sinking!

BR: You see the glass half-full.

IE: Well, yeah, okay! I don’t know. When I made this painting I thought, well, now I’m going to make an optimistic painting! And you think he’s sinking!

BR: I think it’s really which character you identify with. If you go with the guy that is falling, then that’s a pretty depressing painting too!

IE: Some people melt, some don’t! The thing is, it’s kind of an emotional breakthrough in some ways for me. Just like you have an emotional breakthrough in therapy, because actually I am always embarrassed by how they kind of come up in my paintings, and I don’t know what they are about. At the same time I show them to my friends, and the thing I thought was really emotional they see as derivative or something. It’s neither here nor there to me, but the important thing is not to go crazy. This might not be the best painting I’ve ever done, but it will lead to better paintings, and that is important.

BR: I don’t think it looks derivative -- mannerist in a way. You’ve taken all these styles and elements and tried to put them together to depict this really complicated scene -- horror, the Minotaur --

IE: They were just scared [laughing]. I think these paintings are close to what I did after college -- before I started to become too self-conscious and self-aware and hate myself [laughs]. I hated myself for being a magic realist -- for not wanting to say I liked to draw more than paint. There were all these issues, and before I could make these paintings, I had to draw and render each figure perfectly, and of course you learn you don’t have to. I don’t have to do anything. I can go home and go to bed. This work is what I am doing now, and this is what I have gotten the most from.

BR: You are arriving at the point where there aren’t any rules.

IE: Right. That is something you have to realize again and again every day. - Bradley Rubenstein

Pictured: Mob and Minotaur (2002)

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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