Inka Essenhigh

Show Girls


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Inka Essenhigh born 1969
Screenprint with acrylic varnish on paper
Support: 761 × 660 mm
Purchased 2001


Show Girls and the accompanying image, Daedalus and Icarus 2000 (Tate P78510), 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.

Show Girls depicts two women entangled in a fight. Their androgynous bodies are coloured two shades of pink and positioned in a balanced composition of vertical and horizontal elements. A dark fan-shaped area of greyish brown behind them suggests a cloak flying out through the impetus of their movement. The darker pink woman occupies a vertical and active position and straddles the lighter pink woman, whose horizontally positioned body appears to be falling backwards into the brilliant red space of the background. Such feminising details as high-heeled sandals, rudimentary bikini straps and a free-floating hairpiece are coloured pale yellow. The hair of the pale pink woman, wierdly mutated into string-like sections coming out of holes in her head, is being violently pulled upwards by the darker pink woman, whose pointing elbow counterbalances the falling pale pink body. She, in her turn, is being grasped somewhere in the region of a leg-like protrusion by a claw-like hand from below and is about to be pulled over. Pink bone-like bits seem to have been flung, by the force of the interaction, into the space above them. In the lower right corner a bit of pale yellow garment lies discarded.

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 with a series of 'wallpaper' paintings in two versions: Girls Wallpaper and Boys' Wallpaper (both in the collection of the artist). Issues of archetypal gender differences articulated in these works took Essenhigh's concern with abstraction into the more formalised arena of the generic. In Show Girls women are represented as abstracted beings whose femininity is signalled by garments and the bitchy cliché indicated by the title in relation to the rivalrous fight depicted. Where Daedalus and Icarus may be read as a contemporary take on an ancient myth, Show Girls could be seen as a modern day mythologising of a timeless gender stereotype.

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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