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In conversation, Inka Essenhigh and Steve Mumford — who live together and work in adjoining studios on the Lower East Side — are unafraid to make declarations about what motivates the other. Similarly, the work of both artists can be at once an invitation, and a provocation – to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and vice-versa. The spaces they depict, and ask that we enter, are not ingratiating. This, despite the elegant, undulating line that defines Essenhigh’s stylized forms, and the mellifluous quality of Mumford’s ink washes.
Their home is like a carefully curated collection of Mumford’s passions – objects he built, found, or collected: animal skulls and anthropological objects; shelves of old comic books; paintings by his uncle. Since 2003, Mumford has been traveling to conflict ridden areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Guantanamo, Cuba, as an embedded “combat artist,” recording his experiences in pen and ink and watercolor drawings. Mumford rarely focuses on the spectacle of war, but instead on more intimate human dramas and predicaments. His method — direct, observational, scientific — suggests that a small, focused lens can be more valuable for examining a situation than a broad brush. Even when they are scaled up and includes depictions horrific injuries and casualties, he leads our eye to banal, relatable detail.
Essenhigh became known in the late 1990s for her enamel paintings of anime-like creatures inhabiting the voids of public or institutional spaces. Over the last several years, her work evolved into depictions of more universal mythologies and populated landscapes: tree spirits; goddesses; lilting, attenuated flora and fauna – first in oil paint, and now with a combination of enamel and oil. Despite her interest in the occult and meditation, there is also something direct in Essenhigh’s attitude. In her studio, paintings and tools are set up around the perimeter, like lab stations to test possibilities. Her faith in devotional attention and a workmanlike approach as transformative qualities in painting is palpable.
Mumford (b. 1960 in Boston, MA) received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Boston Museum School and his Master of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Mumford’s works have been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville; Pritzker Military Academy Library, Chicago; University of Akron, Ohio; Cranbrook Art Museum, Michigan; The Moore Space, Miami; Tufts University Art Gallery, Massachusetts; Meadows Museum, Dallas, and ACA Gallery of Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta. Mumford has taught at the Cooper Union School of Art, The School of Visual Arts, Montclair State University, and the New York Academy of Art. His work is represented by Postmasters Gallery, where he has had six solo shows since 2002.
Essenhigh (b. 1969 in Belfonte, PA) received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992 from Columbus College of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio, and her Master of Fine Arts in 1994 from School of Visual Arts in New York. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Denver Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Seattle Art Museum; Tate Modern, London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Over the years, she has shown with Dietch Projects, Mary Boone Gallery, 303 Gallery, and Jacob Lewis Gallery. She is represented by Victoria Miro Gallery in London, and Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe in New York. In 2018, she will complete a mural for The Drawing Center, New York, and her work will be featured in solo exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach, and at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe.
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Jennifer Samet: What are some of the formative experiences you had as a child that led you to art-making?
Steve Mumford: I grew up in Cambridge. I loved the Peabody Museum, the natural history museum that is part of Harvard University. It is an utterly, amusingly decrepit Victorian collection where straw is spilling out of the taxidermied animals. It’s arranged like something you’d see in Paris with a cast iron balcony.
My introduction to being an artist was through drawing. I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was a teenager. When I was 20, I traveled in South America for a year and drew.
I loved that idea of the explorer when I was a kid: venturing into the deepest, darkest places. I especially admired the 19th-century model of the amateur explorer and naturalist. For example, when Alfred Russel Wallace was collecting samples in Indonesia, he wasn’t like Darwin. He wasn’t a professional; he wasn’t credentialed. Wallace was a working-class kid who wanted to be in the middle of the jungle, unlocking its secrets. The only way he could do that was to send back specimens to Victorian gentlemen who would pay him to mount a bug or two.
Amateurs found ways to self-finance their expeditions. They had a driving curiosity. Many of those Victorian-era explorers, like Alexander von Humboldt, made beautiful drawings. I love the notion of going somewhere without official credentials, and cobbling together a way to record your experiences. You gather things that have to do with life outside the studio, which become raw material to shape in the studio.
JS: Inka, you grew up in Ohio and you joked, in another interview, that when you were three to eight years old, it was your best period of art-making. What did you mean by that?
Inka Essenhigh: I made a lot of great art then, and I’m still trying to get back there! It was very direct. I made cartoons and elaborate stories about my stuffed animals or my life on a houseboat, or alley cats. Narrative has always been important. But it was also about the spaces that were created – these elaborate stages, where something is going to happen. They are particular – the alleyway, or the houseboat. I like making places you can go to. That is part the fantasy I want to have in my paintings.
I grew up with a big book of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” I loved those worlds, and also the way he drew. I also liked Toulouse-Lautrec — the people, the nightlife of the Moulin Rouge, and the line. It was graphic and glamorizing, but also a real space that you feel you can walk into.
JS: Inka, you have talked about questioning the stories you could tell in your paintings, since you grew up in a protected, safe suburban environment. Steve, you were motivated by images of war to visit Iraq. How did these backgrounds drive each of you into the content you now envision, and imagine?
IE: I grew up in arguably the safest place in the world. It is different from my parents, who were raised during World War II, seeing terrible things. The suburbs are fertile ground for fantasy world.
SM: When I was a kid, I saw pictures of Vietnam in Life magazine and I was always worried that the war would still be going on when I got to be draft age. I was simultaneously terrified and fascinated by it. So when it looked like we were going to be in a real war again, I thought, “This is a subject matter that compels me, so let me see if I can do something with it.”
I wasn’t going to Iraq as a journalist, and I had no pretext of bringing back the truth, whatever that was. I just wanted to feel something, and see if I could actually draw on the spot and transmit that feeling in some way.
JS: You both began your careers as “Abstract Expressionist” painters. Can you talk about your roots in abstraction? Inka, you’ve utilized a process of automatic drawing, with forms emerging from shapes and lines, like the arabesque.
IE: Yes, I did start as an abstract painter. I wanted to be an important painter, and I think that in New York City people will probably take anything as long as they like the paint. If the paint itself is convincing, they don’t really care about the content very much.
But I’ve always wanted content, and to be a storyteller. I know that when I’m making a simple arabesque, and it’s nothing other than a line, it isn’t interesting. If it’s a tree branch it becomes really exciting. But then, if it is too much about the tree, it can become boring again. There is a happy medium that I am looking for. The arabesque can create the feeling that things are alive and animated, and it gives everything the fairy tale quality that I love.
SM: Mine is a different drawing process from Inka’s. When Inka is talking on the phone and doodling, she makes something interesting on a formal level. It has emotion, and you might be able to read some narrative – which originates from the formal qualities – her quick line, and the curious shapes that come out of it.
It’s true that I tried for more or less 10 years to be an Abstract Expressionist. I was just a failure at it. It was with great relief when I realized that I wanted to tell stories, and make paintings that are realistic. I am definitely not someone who thinks instinctively on a formalist level.
JS: Steve, can you tell me about how you became embedded in Iraq, where you created Baghdad Journal (2003-10) a series of works on paper and journalistic texts that documented your experiences?
SM: I had to find a press credential. I tried a few places like the Village Voice. I called Jerry Saltz. He said he loved the idea; he thought it was crazy, but he couldn’t help. Then I called Walter Robinson, who was the editor of Artnet magazine at the time. He said, “Absolutely, I can make you a press pass. We don’t actually have them but we’ll make something up.” It was very easy to get embedded.
I would send work back by satellite, and it would get posted immediately. Soldiers and their families would log on to look at the drawings I had done of their sons’ and daughters’ units. That was great — a very instantaneous form of gratification. That was on my second trip.
JS: Although you don’t call yourself a formalist, you’ve talked about intense, upsetting imagery being on a formal level as well as an emotional level — like the sandbag sacks covering the heads of Iraqi detainees. Can you talk about this?
SM: The image, as a formal construction, is like the Punchinello figures in Tiepolo’s work. They look both completely helpless and strangely powerful. The intensity of the visual effect of the hoods, along with the circumstances of being in an active combat zone, all galvanized me. Also, I had to work very fast, because in each case, the prisoners were in a holding area waiting to be interrogated. I was told I couldn’t take photographs, so I had to sit down and draw as quickly as possible.
I was very aware of how the prisoners might be feeling with a hood over their head, as well as the fact that they might be insurgents who may have been aiming an RPG at me an hour before – or maybe not. I don’t know.
When I was making the drawings that later evolved into the painting “Empire” (2010), I felt aware of these issues: the idea of America as a kind of empire, but also a keeper of global peace: Pax Americana. We had been attacked in 9/11, but how were those issues exactly connected to Iraq? I never saw it in very flat simplistic terms from a right or left perspective.
The scene I was drawing was so dramatic: a tarmac filled with Iraqi prisoners, in orange suits, at night, waiting to be loaded onto a huge C-17. They were kneeling in rows, with American guards standing around them. The ramp to the C-17 looked like something out of Star Wars. The men were blindfolded; they had long beards; they were barefoot or in sandals; their feet were shackled together, and they were being shuffled up a platform, with light coming out of the airplane. It was a stark human drama.
JS: Inka, did the experience and stress of Steve being in Iraq affect your work and the content? How did it influence your thoughts about art-making?
IE: I always felt that the act of perceiving and observing was the thing that was protecting Steve. There is a theory that atoms behave differently if they are being watched. It is like meditation: becoming self-aware through the act of watching. Let’s say Steve walked into a cafe in the middle of Baghdad, and it was slightly hostile. By sitting down and drawing, people would feel themselves being seen. It changes things, and can diffuse the energy.
There was a moment when I was making automatic painting. If something popped into my head, I would go ahead and make it and accept it. I shifted somewhere around 2006. After things got super violent in the war, I decided I didn’t want “whatever.” I wanted it to feel meaningful and beautiful.
I started to crave turning off the radio. I wanted to acknowledge that I was safe, and fine. I didn’t want to act like my part of the world was being bombed. I would like my paintings to remind people that we are safe: to make a vision of the future that is a decent one.
JS: Inka, your early work was painted with enamel; then you started working with oil, and now you are using both. How do the different media change your work, and how is it connected to different kinds of content: what has been called the “pop surrealism” of your early work, as opposed to the populated landscapes of the last few years?
IE: In the early work, the way that I was using enamel paint made it seem like everything I depicted was made of the same material. Everything was plastic, or fake. It all had the same texture. I wanted more life. I wanted a real space, so that it wasn’t about being cyborg, or about being blank, or about Minimalism.
Recently, I decided I wanted the enamel back in my work. I am repainting some of the subjects — like the “Fairy Procession” — from my oil paintings. With enamel, I can sand it down, adjust each line and design it more. With oil painting, it becomes about the atmosphere and the light, and the people dancing across the frame. So now that I have gone back to the enamel, can I have all the shape relationships, and retain the light, the sense of space, and the magical world? That is my goal. I want it all.
Ultimately my goal is for it not to remain in fantasyland, but to transcend that. I’m not somebody who just paints for myself. I believe in reciprocity. So if I paint a green goddess and people can’t go there, I feel as though I have a responsibility to wonder, “Is there a different way that I can get there?”
SM: The New York art world has its own taste. Inasmuch as we are talking about straightforward narrative realism, where details are really rendered, I would say the art world is still a problematic place.
One person’s illustration is another person’s painting. Frederic Remington is a good example of this; he is broadly dismissed in the art world, but certainly not in other quarters. Remington is a wonderful painter. Perhaps one could say the same thing about Andrew Wyeth.
IE: We both circle around narrative and illustration a lot. I think that with modernist art, the art happens in front of you; you see it. With illustration, the art is partially what you are looking at, and partially in your mind, because we can call up these stories. I like that aspect.
SM: I think I’m much more nuts and bolts. The work that inspires me tends to be work like Winslow Homer. There are not a lot of special effects in Homer and there is certainly not that much modernism. “Snap the Whip” (1872) looks like work made by a provincial hick — not a Frenchman. There is something very regional about Homer. At his best, he transcends that. I would like to find what is compelling in what could be dismissed as corny, but try to make it universal.
IE: Hey, that’s what I want to do!
SM: We are both interested in the topic of being absolutely straightforward about emotion — being vulnerable, naked, making the bad painting, the emotionally raw.
JS: The word “universal” came up. Inka, you’ve said you are interested in the idea of the collective unconscious. How does that come into play?
IE: I think about the archetypes and stories that we tell ourselves, and reenact in some way. We change our consciousness through storytelling all the time. If you want to change how people are thinking about something, you can tell a story about it. It does the job really fast. I don’t think I’m necessarily changing consciousness, but I’m painting another place. I would like my paintings to have that feeling — that other worlds are possible.