Painter Inka Essenhigh’s latest exhibition, “Uchronia,” at Kavi Gupta Gallery envisions a distant future in which the planet’s current inhabitants have sworn off their self-destructive ways and gotten their eco-act together. The quasi-museological display is clear, colorful and pretty much bereft of irony. And that’s a shame. Without irony’s protective veneer, what might succeed as utopian satire is silly and tone deaf when taken in earnest.
“New Jersey 2600 CE” is a childlike depiction of a future Garden State transformed into a verdant, Tolkienesque Shire. The inhabitants glow, play kickball and travel via helicopter. Style-checking Matisse’s “Joy of Life,” Essenhigh’s “welcome to the Gather-n-Hunt, a family restaurant, 3500 CE,” is a painting of a painted artifact filled with giant cats, cartoon-colorful customers and something roasting on a spit. In “Kitchen 2623 CE” a floating, translucent creature fixes a meal using beets, telekinesis and curiously contemporary kitchen implements.
In each of these works, or in the room-spanning, sequin-bedazzled night-sky installation “Uchronia,” the idea is to offer some positive vision of the future. But it never comes off that way. The paintings are too naïve, too frivolously executed in style and subject matter to rise to the seriousness their creator claims on their behalf.
Essenhigh is quoted in the press release as wondering, “Can painting a beautiful future help make it come true?” Undoubtedly rhetorical, the simple answer is an emphatic “NO.” Even if we were to accept the premise that the works in question were beautiful and not merely cloying, the notion that a $75,000 painting could somehow succeed where endless catastrophes have failed seems utterly disconnected.
I’m sympathetic to Essenhigh’s cause. I desperately want to live in a world where a painting can make a difference. Where average people argue about whether or not an American is the greatest living painter or just some conman. But that time is long gone. And the belief that any art form that’s not popular music, cinema or television can be more than a passing blip on the sociopolitical radar is willful self-deception. Essenhigh’s heart is in the right place, but the work is still some distance behind. (Alan Pocaro)
“Uchronia” continues through August 24 at Kavi Gupta Gallery, 835 West Washington.