Tuesday, 29 April 2008



In the current show at Victoria Miro, London, the artist pursues her flowing, charged figures to pastoral landscape, their sinuous rhythms dispersed upon foliage and fields, to whimsical, slightly ominous ends. The style recalls children’s book illustration and animation, the charm of naïve, elegant characterisations that mould natural surroundings. The sense of nature pulsing with animation carries none of Vincent Van Gogh’s immediacy or terseness, obviously, yet the expressive and Expressionist impulse similarly sets everything in an uneasy state of flux, hints at creeping transformation or insidious growth, perhaps entrapment or threat. Essenhigh’s silky modelling, delicate drawing and rich colour all add a deliberate sugar-coating, deepen the attraction, yet also spell something of a denial or retreat to child-like faith.

Essenhigh’s use of playful caricature is perfectly in step with wider developments in the mid 90s, when she first gains notice. Comparisons with John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Rita Ackermann, Nicky Hoberman and others are common and the trend marks the steady transition from Neo-Expressionism to a more refined yet pointed depiction. Essenhigh is distinctive initially for her intensely linear, cartoon or comic-strip style that gives her early work almost a Pop Art flavour. She is not drawn to photographic sources or social stereotypes, but rather archetypal or mythic figures, tokens in very abstract circumstances. And while her sharp outlines and flat colours flag comics and cartoons, crucially, she resists familiar figures or situations, often leaves the figure virtually illegible, beyond placement, or no more than a biomorphic squiggle upon a bounded plane.

In this respect the work seems closer to some Surrealist realm, perhaps to the work of Joan Miro or Salvador Dali, for example. But the equation between print norms and painting styles here is also a way of eliciting shared content for just these kinds of abstract figures and settings; of sampling a wider genre, available to both media. This extraction of genre is really what links Essenhigh to others cited, and is part of a wider shift (see also Posts 16, 37 and 43). Yet the mythic figures actually rely upon formal or stylistic terms for their main attributes. In other words, these kinds of figures can only exist in these kinds of pictures, are really the animating spirit to them.

Essenhigh is not the first to mine this overlap between comics and painting, but she had the good fortune to do it when and where reception is prompt. Interestingly, the early work often grants figures trailing costume or finely attenuated extensions that give them literally, a loose, tenuous identity, and subtly anticipate the greater dispersal in the recent landscapes. Similarly, perspective and distance in works of the late 90s often seem to stretch a figure’s reach, to spread it out and confuse costume or instruments with hostile surroundings or rivals. Yet these blends or contests are the work of ambiguous lines and economy of colour; can transcend mere illustration through deft displacement and combination but are hostage to these means, to inked line and flat colour (her first name perhaps inclines her to the linear).

The project for Essenhigh then becomes one of expanding upon these means, of seeing how well her figures survive in more elaborate worlds. And with this of course, the sense of a genre is altered or diluted. For, when she allows graded tone and volume to her pictures, the figures must surrender some of their ambiguity, yet can generate new, perhaps more child-like, fictions to compensate. The work from around 2002 marks this step and preserves linear flourish and confusion, while situating them within greater modelling, more nuanced colour. But this is an unhappy compromise, where either line or tone is redundant to parts of the picture, rather than mischievously allusive. Subsequent works gradually cede arabesque and intricacy to just the figures, allow more coherent tone and depth to settings. Yet this too tends to rob the figures of some of their power, to isolate their seething influence and animal animus. The figures grow steadily more rounded, more human, the settings more accommodating, less diagrammatic. But there is still an awkward gulf between treatment of figures and architecture.

Stricter or more realistic settings only make the figures too mannered or stylised, so that they seem more like dummies or sculptures, arranged in a scene. More successful works simply concentrate on the figures and their engaging interaction. The flipside to this division between figure and architecture, or figures in isolation, is naturally, natural settings, and the recent landscapes. The scope for plays with scale and depth here seem more promising, for the moment are beyond the manmade world.

The artist’s own website has been especially helpful in researching this post.

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