People gather at Miles McEnery Gallery to appreciate art communally—feels like a revolution. (Photo by Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

We can all use an escape these days. Especially in New York City, which emerged as the first hotspot for the global pandemic that has ravaged the entire planet. And maybe even more especially in Chelsea, where the gorgeous galleries that have defined the neighborhood’s renaissance over the last decade have suddenly found themselves seeking assistance in persuading homeless people not to set up right in front of their doorstops.

WHO: Paintings by Inka Essenhigh
WHAT: New Works
WHERE: Miles McEnery Gallery at 525 W. 22nd St.
WHEN: October 15 – November 14, 2020

A patron takes notes on ‘Mission Chinese Restaurant,‘ Inka Essenhigh, 2020, Enamel on canvas, 40 x 50 inches. (Photo by Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)

The Miles McEnery Gallery gets no exemption from the blight that’s suddenly challenging a whole neighborhood that the New York Post just dubbed a “corridor of misery.” Eclat, the high-end boutique next to McEnery, went out of business earlier this year. The Empire diner at 22nd and 10th Ave., famous from its appearance in so many films and Eduardo Kobra’s “Mount Rushmore of Modern art” mural (Warhol, Kahlo, Haring, Basquiat) above its façade, has yet to reopen. (And for some reason hasn’t taken advantage of outdoor dining.) Meanwhile the apartment building right next to the gallery found itself covered in so much early 1980s looking graffiti that it could easily have been mistaken for a sequel to The Warriors.

So it was with great delight—even a sense of relief—that 100 or so art lovers descended on the opening of a promising painter’s new exhibition. At the Inka Essenhigh exhibit of new paintings at Miles McEnery, visitors had their temperature taken before admittance and were asked by contact tracers to list their phone number. It’s a tolerable inconvenience well worth the good will of seeing fresh art, being around fellow appreciators, and seeing the NYC-based artist herself greet her public. Which seemed to include a good number of relatives, plus an assortment of friends and classmates from her days at SVA, from which she received her MFA in 1994.

Ms. Essenhigh told the Fine Art Globe, “I paint the world that I want to live in: a fantastical world which still celebrates the here and now.”

Essenhigh has been on something of a hot streak. Recent solo exhibitions include the Susquehanna Art Museum in Harrisburg, the Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen and many more. Internationally, she’s enjoyed solo shows at Victoria Miro in London plus shows in Brussels, Venice, Edinburgh, and Salamanca, Spain.

Inka Essenhigh in black mask, with her painting ‘Orange Fall,’ 2020, Enamel on canvas, 72 x 96 inches. (Photo by Ken Kurson for Fine Art Globe)

A quick trip through the Chelsea show makes it obvious why Essenhigh’s stock is rising. In these colorful, dreamlike images, one can spot influences ranging from comic books to anime. But this isn’t really pop art nor is it completely surreal. Often there are straightforward representations, but the longer one looks the more one notices something’s just a little off in a way that evokes the psychology of the greatest fairytales.

As the handout aptly notes, “The works on view display story book fantasias that often rearrange familiar elements of daily life or the natural world into something disquietingly picturesque. Her dreamlike paintings, populated with woodland scenes, Baudelairean flowers and mystical beings, offer an animistic responsiveness in which plant life in non-Anthroposcene beings become cyphers for human-like behaviors and feelings.”

I’m embarrassed to include so many $10 words in just a couple sentences, but whoever wrote this really nailed the element that’s simultaneously both charming and uncomfortable about these images.

Ms. Essenhigh actually explains her work quite ably herself. In a stylish video the gallery produced to accompany the show, the artist describes exactly what she hoped to achieve. “With these works, I’ve made a world that was very defined and three dimensional so that you can walk into it. Or at least. you can grab it. It’s as if they were sculptures.”