The idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness, large-scale oil paintings by the Bay Area painter Squeak Carnwath are personal ruminations on everything from politics to urban anxieties and parental concerns (“PAReNTS BEWARE homework is BAD”) [sic], to name just a few of the issues that rise to the surface, unbidden like half heard conversations or bad dreams. Though the exhibition at The Frederick R. Weissman Museum on the splendid Pepperdine Campus is entitled How the Mind Works, it really could be called Notes To Self.
One wall in the first room (I must confess this is my favorite part of the exhibition), is covered from floor to ceiling with notes, sketches, drawings, playlists, written in pencil and oil paint with erasures, splotches, oil and coffee stains offering everything from process notes to anthems for better living, push-pinned casually to the wall. For example, a poignant pencil sketch states reasons to wake up in the morning” — and lists — breakfast, love,thought, sex, rain, clouds, sunlight, morning air, dogs walking, bath to wash and coffee. “Time” and “music” are added in black, painted with a brush. To the right is a rectangle with a note to self “make a striped ptg like/similar to monotype” with a quick diagrammatic sketch of that proposed image underneath the text. On the bottom, hastily scrawled are the words “cobalt glazed over white square, brn pink or bl blk over white” — interesting and valuable process information for the viewer.
There are playlists here or ideas for music themed text paintings, two of which are included in this show. One list includes the following artists and the name of the song and/or album: Carole King (I Feel the Earth Move), Joan Baez (Diamonds and Rust), Madonna (Like a Prayer), Judy Collins (Both Sides Now). All arefeminist anthems that are poignant, erotic, melancholy and saucy. The overwhelming angst, thoughts and worries clamoring for attention on this wall are very human and extremely relatable. That Carnwath can and does harness the frenzied chaos of this complex interior monologue and creates coherent paintings is due to her sheer will and enormous talent.
Carnwath’s resolutely diaristic paintings combine an abstract-expressionist love of surface and gesture but with a twist. The mottled dripped and rough-looking surface is surprisingly smooth, almost marble like, with a satin sheen, like a thin eggshell coating. This smooth surface seems to lock all the competing images together as if they are embedded in the paint. That isn’t to say that there aren’t ridges -often a section looks purposely collaged but is often a trompe l’oeil page replete with lines and text. It looks identical to the cheap, lined paper one uses in elementary school, which underscores its ordinariness, its insignificance. These painted pages are meant to summon up (and do they ever!) the many to-do lists that rule our contemporary lives. There is a sense of repetition here as words and images repeat, like a song that loops endlessly in our mind and that we can’t seem to shake loose.
The curatorial wall text has an explanation for the viewer of the icons that appear, disappear and are painted over constantly, perhaps as a teaching tool for the students at the university. These include a candelabra, which to this reviewer looks like a person with arms raised, a sinking cruise ship reminiscent of The Titanic, quilt-like gridded patterns, vinyl records (only the A side, side one is visible,) and bunnies standing on two legs. The curators state that in Carnwath’s own iconography the “… the candelabra is a symbol of “good taste,” history and tradition, the sinking ship is a symbol for any and all disasters and misfortunes, the dumb bunny is a sexist cliché from the 1950’s that refers to a beautiful but unintelligent woman.” Perhaps referring to dumb bunnies or the Playboy bunnies of yore.
The earliest painting in this exhibition is entitled Mystery, 1991, oil and alkyd on linen, 20 x 20 inches. Divided nearly in half, with a deep blue sky on the top, and a speckled granular beige ground, it is clearly a landscape. But where and of what is the question? A spiritual peanut-shaped “figure” in deep brownish red with red dots floating inside is reminiscent of the cave paintings of Peche Merle in France when 35,000 years ago cave painters enclosed contours of animals with red dots. Eerie and supernatural, it is a simple but strangely compelling image.
In Pursuit Of Happiness, 2000, oil and alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 inches, is an even more metaphorical landscape. Planet-like spheres or dots populate a blue- black field that suggests outer space or even inner space. A grid of colored squares floats in the blue-black field and text is scratched through in the right side. “One Man’s Happiness” reads the text while underneath it is the question “Does Life Make Sense Really?” Barely legible is a section about someone’s own private rocket and mentions a Russian cosmonaut and being able to pay for the experience of weightlessness. Two bunnies are in conversation in this enigmatic image. Many of the messages implanted in Carnwath’s work are spiritual, mystical and philosophical.
In the 2005, oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 90 x 80 inches, entitled “Reflection, the canvas is divided into three unequal parts. A blue rectangle covers about one quarter of the space. Underneath Carnwath writes in black paint the following question with a mixture of upper and lower case letters, as is her style.
IF Painting is a Language, is this thinking
Or OBServation? For instance is this A picture of
The Sky? or a Blue-ISH patch of PAINT? And if
Language Represents unique ways of thinking then, painting
If it is a kind of Language, Represents the most unique
Form OF THINKING and just to complicate things, painting
Is the embodiment of time: Real and true.
Clearly, Carnwath is the soul of an abstract expressionist painter, manipulating paint in a joyful, searching even labored way. Like Basquiat, who also scrawled messages on his canvases, Carnwath uses text to ask philosophical, political and metaphysical questions as she sees the world swirling around her in troublesome ways coming undone. Her painting technique and thought process has her adding, then subtracting, keeping all in flux; all is becoming before being encased in the oil painting’s final incarnation. She seeks transcendence through recpetition (like repeated prayers) , creating a veritable tsunami of images and text. A masterful shamanistic shape shifter, Carnwath is able to create unforgettable pictures from her fantasies, dreams, needs, wants and reveries.