Mary Esch has spent the better part of her career investigating the act of storytelling in drawings, paintings, and prints that often take a revisionist look at history, myths, and fables. In a body of work completed for her 1997 Dialogues exhibition at the Walker Art Center, for example, the artist transported the viewer into the wondrous and violent realms of the fairy tale through the dreamlike tableaux of a series of paintings and drawings. While these works display a fascination with the moral lessons of fables such as those of the Brothers Grimm, her stories take a decidedly sharp turn away from the self-assured conclusions of their historical progenitors. If the tale of Hansel and Gretel is clear cut in the resolution of its narrative conflict, such is not the case in Esch’s work, which weaves a circuitous and at times bizarre path through her fantastic worlds, twisting them to her own ends and leaving them far more open to speculative interpretation.
Esch’s paintings portray garish vignettes where figures driven from the pages of unknown stories frolic, do battle, and act out strange scenes of joy and barbarism. Their cartoonish quality calls to mind the work of so-called outsider artist Henry Darger, whose obsessive drawings and writings portray a violent struggle in a mythical world of his own making. Esch shares Darger’s almost perverse delight in upending lessons taught by the likes of Aesop. In Esch’s mind, the history of the fable is one in which particular moral positions are circumscribed in their conclusions. The storylines of her paintings work against this trend, as their narrative trajectories are not so completely clear. A duck absurdly proclaims its divinity in one work, while in another two soldiers do battle with pistols amidst a raucous crowd of rambunctious girls. Part of Esch’s strategy is to leave the meaning of these seductively naive and childlike images open to interpretation. But in each case, she captures something of the dark underside of the works of the Brothers Grimm, adding at times a gothic tension to complement the lightheartedness of these scenarios. In her Red Riding Hood Studies (1997), she chose to twist its elements to fit her needs. Composed of a cycle of twelve drawings, the series depicts a sequence of events in which the heroine stumbles upon a hyena that consumes her. She is not, however, saved from the creature’s ravenous appetite by the heroics of a timely woodsman, but manages to extricate herself from the belly of the beast in a kind of quasi-feminist act of assertiveness. But the story never ends—for as we work our way through these drawings, it begins again in a kind of eternal recurrence that defuses the standard interpretation of the original. Like Hansel and Gretel nibbling on the sweet cake that made up the house of the wicked witch, Esch’s work uses and then slowly gnaws away the sanitized veneer of the fairy tale, revealing beneath its surface both the pathos and the infinite possibility of the act of storytelling.