Inka Essenhigh is a New York-based painter whose highly colorful paintings feature dramatic distortions and abstractions of figures and landscapes. Earlier bodies of work dating to the 1990s featured opaque effects, linear elements and violent painterly gestures, all in tension with the artist's rich, vibrant color fields. Essenhigh is masterful at drawing us into her paintings under the notion that we are in familiar territory, from which her work then pushes the viewer to re-consider the effects of distorted figuration and abstraction on our powers of recognition.

The protagonists in these paintings tear and wrestle with their surroundings at times floating or flying. Figures can appear perched on freely constructed organic forms or as non human entities that move at lightning speed through vast landscapes. On the occasion of her third solo exhibition at 303 Gallery in New York, we ask the about planning the dissolution of her mysterious figures:

NOAH BECKER: I'm curious about how you arrived at your process of working? In Spring Bar Scene (2007–2008) (PICTURED LEFT, COURTESY 303 GALLERY) there is quite a complex grouping of drunken bar patrons. Do you make preliminary drawings before you begin painting? How planned out is your working process in this regard?

INKA ESSENHIGH: Up until a couple years ago all my paintings were made as "automatic paintings." I would start with a few splashes of color and then continue with whatever image suggested itself. These days I know what image I'm going to make, I think of it for months even before any sketches. Then I make a few drawings based on the feeling that I want. I go and out and make drawings from life. In the case of Spring Bar Scene I made a sketch of the overall drawing, then freehanded the basic sketch onto the canvas and made up the people and the details as I went along. I do a lot of repainting.

BECKER: What caused that shift from an automatic painting process to a more planned image?

ESSENHIGH: The reason that I worked "automatically" was because it frees me up and I didn't feel responsible for making meaning. I just began having things I wanted to make-like the beautiful quality of twilight, a snowflake, etc.

BECKER: Your works have a definite overall color to them. Are you intuitive as a colorist or do you work out specific plans for your colors?

ESSENHIGH: I sit and think about the overall feeling of the painting and then start mixing up a large blob of oil paint that best expresses that mood. Everything else will relate to that color.

BECKER: You cite very naturalistic and intuitive references. How do you conceive-or reconcile, even-those works with your paintings with an explicitly critical agenda, as in your works about world events?

ESSENHIGH: I'd like my art to be big and flexible enough to be able to express what ever I want. Most of the socially critical paintings were made around 2003-5 when my husband, Steve Mumford, went to Iraq to make drawings of the war and I felt very involved in world events. He still makes trips but I no longer think of it in terms of politics.

BECKER: I was particularly struck by your painting World Traveler Or Hotel Room (2004). (PICTURED LEFT COURTESY 303 GALLERY) This was the first picture I saw of yours that was different in terms of its use of low key colors like browns and greys. The lone traveler with their belongings littered on a bed has a heroic quality about it. It's that the feeling of travel and waiting in some international airport or hotel. I thought it was your self portrait the first time I looked at it.
ESSENHIGH: I think of it as being about a new sort of middle class refugee, somehow having to be confined to a hotel room because of unforeseen circumstances. At the same time, I was picturing my own husband traveling around in hotel rooms during the Iraq War.  But in this case a sort of societal breakdown where business as usual continues.

BECKER: Your work often involves a subtle, subversive imbrication of figure and landscape—or backdrop, even. Where do you situate your practice in terms of figuration and abstraction?

ESSENHIGH: I want to show the landscape as "having life" even though it's not a figure. A landscape that seems empty can be infused with mystical qualities... In any case, they are not abstract paintings, I want to tell stories! Good figurative paintings always have an abstract element—if someone wanted to include me in an abstract painting show then that would be fine, it seems the distinctions of these terms are fluid.

Inka Essenhigh opens January 23,  6–8 PM. 303 Gallery is located at 547 West 21st St., New York.