Thursday, June 25, 2009

Squeak Carnwath

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, June 25, 2009—
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS now I've been enjoying (inadequate word, that) the painting of the Oakland artist Squeak Carnwath. She's squarely within the Bay Area tradition of painting; if you know that painting over the last forty years you'll see how she fits in.

Right now she has a big show up at the Oakland Museum of California, forty big paintings or so, beautifully installed in the capacious Great Hall, handsomely lit, well separated from one another but close enough to converse.

At lunch after seeing the show we mentioned it to a friend, who asked, reasonably enough, what Squeak's painting is like. Um, well. Like all good mature painters she has her recognizable style: you can't miss it. But what is it? You can place her in that tradition I mention above, narrowing in by calling the roll of the Bay Area painters she clearly has affinities with, some well known, others not: William Wiley, Ciel Bergman, Pia Stern, Inez Storer, Phil Linhares, …

She has a repertory of visual devices that recur from canvas to canvas: an outline standing rabbit, a Greek urn, black LP records, tally-marks, color samples. The paintings are big, five feet square and bigger; and many have light-colored grounds, whites inflected more by texture than shading, with these devices pushing forward, sometimes small, sometimes dominating almost the entire painting.
Squeak Carnwath, Stolen Borrowed, 2004. Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 195.6 x 195.6 cm (77 x 77 in.).
Collection of the artist, courtesy of Nielsen Gallery, Boston, MA. © Squeak Carnwath/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Above all her canvases tend to incorporate counted numerals — 1, 2, 3, 4, … — and the (hand-)written word, often phrases or titles or whole sentences, sometimes perhaps overheard from a radio program playing in the studio as she works, or jumping off the page of a newspaper.

Now and then a painting will be muted, in grays or grayed beiges; but most often the colors are bold: primaries, secondaries.

She sounds like Ray Saunders, our friend said over her lunch. Well, yes, I can see that, Saunders belongs to this group too: but Squeak Carnwath paints, I think, though I know it's politically incorrect to say so, with a woman's intelligence and sensibility. This is dangerous ground because so often we react to the classification implied by the statement, rather than the characterization that I mean.

What I like about Squeak's painting is its contemplativeness, the depth of its understanding, the range of its vision, the faithfulness of its address. I feel comfortable with her and her work, both because and in a way despite its depth and intelligence and immense sympathy. I continually refer to her here by her first name precisely because I am comfortable with her; and while I know she sees more, probably knows more, and certainly paints better than I ever could, there's nothing daunting in that.

Painting like hers goes beyond the question of Abstraction or Representation. Her canvases are arrangements of emblems, two-dimensional visible things that stand for something or suggest or recall something. It fascinates me that among the earliest modern paintings of this sort is Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic Tu m’; much of the apparently philosophical content of Dada grows out of this approach.

(Though the 19th-century fool-the-eye paintings of, for example, John Peto announce this development in visual art; and I suppose certain elements of Dutch still-life painting play into it.)

You pour yourself into these paintings of Squeak's, taking them in entire in their balanced compositions, inflected as they are by apparently quick gestures and decisions. You count off their numerals and tallies, read their words and phrases. (Many of them have their titles painted on their thick edges, which advertise them, in a way, as you approach them.)

Then you move in if you like, examining the surfaces close too; I like to do this looking with one eye through a cupped-hand framer, as if I were flying close over an absorbing terrain, enjoying improbable juxtapositions of isolated complex colors. At one point I found myself dancing backward away from a canvas, still looking at it with one eye, whirling slowly to find the other canvases moving into view, assuming new relationships. This gallery should be a ballroom; the music would be profound and enchanting, and the dance exhilarating and refreshing.

Squeak's paintings are important. They carry meaning and experience. Seeing them, imagining the dedication and skill and humility that creates them, you're reassured: none of us experience our Human Condition alone; we all confront life and death, joy and sorrow, awareness and perplexity. When one of us, doing all that, can record those confrontations with such humor, intelligence, and beauty, she does it for each of us, for all of us. I for one am profoundly grateful.

Squeak Carnwath: Painting Is No Ordinary Object :
The Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St.; tel. 510/238-2022
Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.,
through Aug. 23

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