Critics are not required to be right, merely (as Donald Judd said of artworks) interesting. But part of what makes criticism of new art potentially interesting is that it is, in part, a gaze into the future. Remember Clement Greenberg in The Nation in 1946 predicting of Jackson Pollock’s work, “In the course of time, this ugliness will become a new standard of beauty,” and two years later, venturing that one of the same artist’s paintings “will in the future blossom and swell into a superior magnificence; for the present it is almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors.” Most criticism, of course, doesn’t make its wagers on the future so explicitly, nor should it. Greenberg only unsheathed his crystal ball during those rare moments of highest intensity of feeling, and we should follow that example. Yet still our judgements remain hostages to fortune.
Musings on the fate of judgment have been much on my mind since seeing exhibitions by a couple of painters, Inka Essenhigh and Cecily Brown, who in the late 1990s seemed to me without doubt to be among the most promising painters on the New York scene. They recently exhibited their latest efforts in New York, at the Miles McEnery Gallery and the Paula Cooper Gallery, respectively. I had to wonder: Would I find they’d made good on their promises? Had they blossomed? Or might their great potential have been more in the eye of the beholder? Now these artists, both about 50 years old, are well into that strange and amorphous phase of life known as the midcareer, which can be (as Edward Said once bluntly observed in an article on middle-aged musicians) “not an especially rewarding period,” when “one is no longer a promising young person and not yet a venerable old one.”
Back in the 1990s, Essenhigh’s signature material was glossy enamel paint, which immediately put her at a tangent to tradition. She played up the material’s slick, cold, flat, industrial quality—a bit seductive, a bit repellent, and as far as can be from the atmosphere and organic nuance possible with oil paint. Her paintings felt more like models or diagrams of an alternate reality than pictures of it. Their imagery projected cadres of faceless and distorted cyborgian figures performing inexplicable rituals, at once militaristic, technological, and sexual; in a 1998 statement the artist herself evoked “contact sports, war, and cheerleading.” The flatly rendered, evenly illuminated scenes were conceived, it seemed, as a sort of perverse decoration, kept by wit from going over the top; with their large areas of uninflected color and intricate linear draftsmanship, they seemed to fellow painter Ross Bleckner to “span a range from funky and cartoony to elegant, like science fiction rendered into Ming Dynasty decoration, Chinoise screens, or lacquered bowls.” To me, at the time, it seemed that the unnatural twisting and torquing anatomies were being tormented in the name of a hypertrophied aestheticism.
Around 2002, Essenhigh switched to the more traditional medium of oils. It made a big difference: the elegant but airless planarity of her first paintings gave way to volumetric forms in depth. Essenhigh reflected that the change meant an intensification of emotion—for her, the enamel meant “cool irony.” But her subject matter did not change as much as her style, at least at first. Fundamentally, what entered Essenhigh’s work with the use of oil paint was shadows—and with them, spatial depth and forms with heft and volume to them. The world she was portraying became more concrete, more particular. For me that heightened concreteness created a problem, because the distinctly irreal—fantastically dreamlike—beings and situations she conjured could not support the tangibility with which she rendered them, or vice versa. Her imagery belonged more to the style she’d thrown over than the one she’d taken up in its stead, and it seemed as if it were calling for its former guise. Since, as it also seemed to me, her art was fundamentally driven by image-making rather than style, I found myself rooting for Essenhigh to return to her former way of working with enamel. Maybe I should have accepted this unease about the connection between style and imagery as essential to the paintings’ meaning, as an embodiment of the shadowy disquiet that was always part of the work. But I couldn’t. This formal displacement kept distracting me from the paintings’ turbid psychological content, rather than heightening it.
After a long wait, I got my wish: For the works in her previous New York show, in 2018, she’d started using enamel again. Most of the paintings in her recent show are enamel, as well. But I was wrong to imagine that Essenhigh’s return to the medium she used 20 years ago would mean a return to anything like her style of that time. These days, Essenhigh is using her enamel paint with far greater subtlety and nuance than she did then; in fact, she’s found ways to elicit unexpected depth and tone—to make it behave much more like oil paint than you’d think it ever could, only with a lightness that her oil paintings often lacked. In place of the “cool irony” of 20 years ago, the eccentricity of the new paintings feels emotionally exposed.
Some of the best things in Essenhigh’s show are flower paintings, which is something that, strangely, I’ve noticed lots of painters—mostly women—doing lately: Hayley Barker, Jennifer Packer, and Nicola Tyson are among the first I think of. Maybe it has to do with a desire certain artists feel to find a more oblique way of approaching subject matter. Etel Adnan, a great writer who’s also a remarkable painter—though I’m not aware that she’s ever painted flowers—recently wrote: “Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are.” Paintings are silent in just that way. A bouquet can be a symbol of mourning, of consolation, or it can represent the fullness of life, its flourishing; it can bespeak a reverence for nature or a delight in artifice.
In some paintings a flower might remind you of your own backyard or window box; Essenhigh’s might be growing on another planet. In her catalogue essay for the show, art historian Jenni Sorkin sees the subject of Full Bloom (2020) as “Baudelairean…flowers of evil that end in spikes and sharp edges and thorns.” I think she’s exaggerating—a bit. Coloristically, Full Bloom is the most subdued piece in the show, with deep green foliage fading back into a gray background, and mostly white flora rendered less blatant by a tinge of pale green; a few dark purple blossoms are most recessive of all. This puts the image at a distance; one hardly thinks of being able to touch anything in it, let alone of getting one’s finger pricked. The flowers in this painting meet Adnan’s description of silence, as not still but full of inner movement: dilating, mutating, extending in arabesque eddies to convey a distinctly unnatural elegance. But they also have something like the aloof distance of a figure in a portrait by Bronzino: Essenhigh’s are mannerist flowers.
But if Essenhigh’s flowers are somehow stand-ins for the human body, they still look like products of botanical growth. Consider the woman primping at her dresser in Forever Young (2020), with her leaf-patterned skin or garment—it’s impossible to tell which it is: Her hand emerges from her wrist like a pistil from petals. The couple in the landscape of Predawn in Early Spring (2020) have sprouted from the earth like plants and are surrounded by others still germinating. Is it an understated satire of the desire to be one with nature and of the “plant-based” lifestyle that has become popular just as we’re shifting nature itself to a state that is inhospitable to humans? One could guess as much, given another of the works here, The Last Party (2020), depicting an al fresco bash where one last drop is being poured from a bottle under a poisonous yellow sky.
There’s something perverse and a little creepy about Essenhigh’s anti-humanistic vision. What makes it hard to look away is the brilliance with which she uses the lushness of color to turn the sinister seductive. One critic even happily confessed that Essenhigh’s skills practically undid him as a critic; in front of one of her paintings, Artforum’s Alex Jovanovich wrote, “I haven’t the faintest desire to engage in my critical faculties. I just want to be overcome by the supple, erotic strangeness of her surrealist narratives; the chitinous sheen of her works’ surfaces; her Prada-meets–Star Trek palette; and the gelatinous, ectomorphic figures.” Implying that human desires and actions are no more reasoned or humane than the development of a possibly poisonous plant, she proves her point by using chromatic sensuality—whether the palette is subdued, as in Full Bloom, or loud with contrast, as in Forever Young—to solicit our enjoyment of scenes that our brains say we should find disturbing, to make what’s indigestible look delicious.