Other Voices: Squeak Carnwath

Squeak Carnwath mixes familiar and recognizable images-think New Image painting- within a smart, sharp fields of patterns built of numbers and colors then overlaid with words. Carnwath's fields look conceptual; they are methodical in structure like an algebraic formula on a  blackboard but then suffused with thoughts that stand out-a translation of her internal dialogue out loud onto the canvas for all to see.  Like Mel Bochner's recent language paintings and prints, or Joseph Kosuth's room size neon sculpture, Carnwath has been using words for many decades. The broken phrases or private messages convey feelings, emotions, directions, observations and in one instance the outraged reply to her mate's mumbling words while he slept: MY NAME'S NOT TINA she cried back. Hence a painting of the same name, loud, riotous lettering making it clear that there aint no Tina here.  No she is not Tina and not anyone but Squeak a tough, thoroughly educated and aware former UC Berkeley teacher and full time artist who has built a forty year career yet without the kind of flamboyance and fan fare of other California painters such as her peers Ed Ruscha and his nomenclature of the everyday or Wayne Thiebaud and his personal diner aesthetic. Why one may ask? We no longer think of either Ruscha or Thiebaud as California painters. They are renowned across the US and abroad as well with exhibitions at galleries and museums nearly everywhere. For Carnwath such recognition is on the horizon; she is being discovered by a new generation that sees in her work a worldly and wise freedom. Carnwath is the interpreter of the present. Like Ruscha and Thiebaud she borrows from the everyday but she does not stop there; she wants us to think about this everyday. And as another painting shouts out at us WAITING FOR A MIRACLE, 1992 - Read more by Michael Klein, NAP Contributor, after the jump.

Squeak Carnwath | Identity, 1990, oil and alkyd on canvas, 82 x 82 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

Squeak Carnwath | Miracle, 1992, oil and alkyd on canvas, 82 x 82 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

Hers is an on going commentary on life, work and love summed up in the subtitle of her first book: lists, observations and counting.  She is a 21st century citizen and an artist who worries and struggles and dreams like most of us but especially painters and poets and other artistic types. These folks look for both purpose and place in a world that is overwhelmed by an inflated marketplace in which every thought, action and deed is translated into a liquid currency. At the same time it is a world saturated by a valueless media that divides us up into two distinct groups, between stars and criminals. Carnwath's paintings are in fact a personal refuge from this mayhem. Each is filled with insights and humor; quiet thoughts and poetic phrases and a vast array of imagery from the most mundane object like a glass to the ever inviting picture of a tree. Though our common language has been reduced to " texting " and while the cavalcade of banal images diminishes their true impact, the power of pictures is equally diminished as the impact of words, just so much more data to absorb and file. Carnwath is still able to fortify her thoughts and thereby her pairings in paintings built with ideographic pictures and simple words. Her pictures are intimate like Vuillard’s wallpapered interiors, and colorful like Matisse’s still life models-always modulated, balanced and remarkably soothing even when the words get big read loud.

Great painters refuse to give up. We are constantly surprised and delighted when they succeed in their craft,  as if we are dismayed by the fact  that this old school practice still retains its magic and power. While the international market is hot for painting-values have reached staggering numbers at auction houses-the belief in painting seems to have dwindled when one sees what is presented by young artists at current art fairs. Its as if painting is divided between jumbles of inexplicable forms or the narrative of some gruesome reality.

Painters have as much of a chance at success as poets; statistically it is some 1in a 1000. There is a certain attrition rate because the art and craft require time, concentration, commitment and the chance collision of a painter's thoughts jelling with the time and representing the temperature of the moment. Imagine Ab Ex arriving in the 60s, or Pop Art being made in the 40s, couldn't work. Styles have meaning. Carnwath recognized that phenomenon and hers is a style that is very much of the moment. Her long plaintiff scripts in which she emotes on day to day life have much in common with Marina Abramovic's performance work: long arduous hours of silence and stillness. Both are hard work. Both artists demonstrate a willful and powerful exposure of self.

Carnwath seeks the same meditation on the present moment as Abramovic. And like Abramovic the paintings demand a certain silence and stillness on the part of the viewer to read and translate and figure out what is happening or being portrayed.

Squeak Carnwath | You Call This Happy, 2001, oil and alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

Images have meaning, words carry a message, add nuance color, formal arrangements, combined all transmit a code which when combined unlike the riddle of the Sphinx have many solutions but no single answer. The viewer is free, in fact encouraged, to interpret--to weave his or her own storyline from the scenes portrayed and the information provided. The silver silhouette of a candelabra, the emblem like image of a sinking ship, handprints, or the grid of numbers or the alphabet suggest references, point to ideas that are on the mind of an adult but presented with a certain innocence-not naive-but as if we are witnesses to the very the act of a discovery of these objects, color sensations and the mysteries of symbols. You Call This Happy, 2001 is a case in point, or a decade later Sampler, 2010.

Squeak Carnwath | Sampler, 2010, oil and alkyd on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

When we think of the west we think Park, Diebenkorn, Brown, Wylie even Chicago--no single West coast aesthetic exists among its painters instead a strident group of individuals who have charted their own course and mapped out their own vision. Here too stands Carnwath. A woman's voice is not always so acknowledged or honored. We don't seem to trust women as innovators or thinkers furthermore we don't deny their talent yet we exclude them from consideration in the larger pantheon of cultural movers and shapers.

Squeak Carnwath | Obit, 2000, oil and alkyd on canvas, 80 x 80 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

Squeak Carnwath | Manifestation, 2005, oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 80 x 90 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath

What I really like are the large almost colorless canvases that contain a cascade of words whether the list of names in Obit, 2000 or Promise, 1999 or Manifestation 2005.  So perhaps her roots lie in a literary realm with great women like Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman  or Hannah Arendt?  As a society we have abandoned critical thought; stepped away en masse from the threshold of ideas. The joy and pleasure of contemplation and the passion and energy in the exchange ideas has been almost nullified. We now assume that all artists seek to mimic or live a Warhol career, a career full of irony, titillations; playing to audiences by the repeated use of popular culture as a source and manipulating that imagery to taunt and tease ad nauseam. (Perhaps playing to one's audience is not all that intriguing but it is a sure bet route to success these days.) Ms. Carnwath brings us back to think, wonder and maybe even read aloud.

Perhaps there are other painters like Carnwath who cherish the world of ideas. We allow it, even expect it from the Europeans we admire yet here at home we seem dismayed by the very notion of such a thing…and then by a woman! Think of Anslem Kiefer or Gerhard Richter. We ignore even resent history, we shy way from literature that is not slapstick or kitsch and we admonish those among us who have political values that could make their way into our art. Should we divide the art world today like our political parties between red and blue artists? After all as Carnwath quips in a recent title, Memory is a Color, 2007

Squeak Carnwath | Memory is a Colour, 2007, oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 75 x 65 inches, Photo Courtesy Squeak Carnwath


Michael Klein is a private dealer and independent curator for individuals, institutions and arts organizations.


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