Inka Essenhigh

Daedalus and Icarus


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Inka Essenhigh born 1969
Screenprint with acrylic varnish on paper
Support: 760 × 660 mm
Purchased 2001


Daedalus and Icarus and the accompanying image, Show Girls 2000 (Tate P78509), represent Essenhigh's second foray into printmaking (her first was the previous year). They are ten-colour silkscreen prints on Somerset velvet paper, coated with acrylic varnish after printing to create a high gloss finish. This gloss surface is consistent with Essenhigh's paintings on canvas using enamel-based oil paint, such as Born Again 1999-2000 (Tate T07702). Her techniques for making both prints and paintings result in a shiny vinyl effect, a far remove from their highly textured basic materials of paper and canvas. The two prints complement each other, although they are individual works and may be displayed separately. The characters they depict are similar in style to those appearing in Essenhigh's paintings, although the prints are much smaller in format. They were printed at Noblet Serigraphie, New York in an edition of forty, of which these are numbers five, and published by Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art, New York.

Daedalus and Icarus is a contemporary rendition of a well-known art historical subject, the Greek myth recounted in book eight of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the myth, Daedalus, a skilled inventor, was trapped on the island of Crete. In order to escape by air, he built wings of feathers and wax for himself and his young son Icarus. Unwisely ignoring his father's warning to avoid the heat of the sun, Icarus could not resist soaring up high, with the result that the wax melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. The central figure in Essenhigh's depiction is a draped and cloaked pink figure being sucked into a blood red circular pool of swirling liquid. He (or she) is half-turned towards and pointing in accusation at the ambiguous figure above it which appears to be floating, partially supported by strange flesh-coloured, organic draperies which rise up behind it. The olive green line outlining this figure also attaches it to a protruding wave from the red pool and a curve of flesh-like drapery extends from below the floating figure to the cloak in the pool. Orange cones on square bases reminiscent of incense are dotted around and in the red pool. At the top left corner of the print a flesh-coloured orb is positioned at the end of a curved linear trajectory which is followed by more little orange cones disappearing in perspectival space. This group of objects suggests a mystical or mythological planetary configuration and possibly refers to the sun.

Essenhigh's figures evoke such terms as humanoid, cyborg, hybrid and mutant. They combine human elements with strange, garment-like body parts and mechanistic, prosthetic extensions. Amputated or fragmented and reconstituted, Essenhigh's figures and forms suggest both technological intervention and the kind of deformation through melting characteristic of the paintings of Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-89). Her use of flat colour and fine, mostly dark outlines around her figures emphasises their cartoon-like quality. Unlike cartoons, however, Essenhigh's figures never have faces. She has explained: 'Faces add baggage, especially cartoon faces, which, like a stylized tatoo, can reveal a lot about yourself - your education, cultural attitudes, personal aesthetics and so on. Delineated faces bring unnecessary information to the image and prevent abstraction.' (Quoted in Dreishpoon, p.9.) After making amorphic, expressive 'blob' paintings in the mid-1990s, in 1996 Essenhigh moved away from overt painterly abstraction. The figures in some of her more recent work represent a different kind of abstraction, that of the generic or universal as represented by myth. Paintings produced in 1999 with such titles as Daphne and Apollo and The Adoration (both Mary Boone Gallery, New York) would, like Daedalus and Icarus, seem to address mythological subjects directly through their titles. Using her individual and highly ambiguous forms, Essenhigh attempts to create a mythological generic in the language of contemporary art.

Further reading:
Douglas Dreishpoon, American Landscapes: Recent Paintings by Inka Essenhigh, exhibition catalogue, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo 1999
Laura Hoptman, 'Nothing Natural', Frieze, no.47, pp.74-5
Hybrids: International Contemporary Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2001, pp.22-5

Elizabeth Manchester
April 2002

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