In July 2006, during a conversation we had in her studio, Squeak Carnwath made a series of statements that have stayed with me, beginning with: “I am a painting chauvinist.” That conversation was later published as an interview (The Brooklyn Rail, November 2006), in which she also discussed the strict parameters that define her work: “Yes, there’s some element of me that’s very rigid where this has to be all painting, it has to be on a flat surface, and be all paint. It can’t be pencil, crayon, or magic marker. It can’t be anything but paint.” The reason for this limitation was because, ‘it [paint] can be any form, and take on any form.”
I think one reason that I am interested in artists who are “painting chauvinists” is because Carnwath’s statement has analogies with a poet’s belief that words can be any form, and take on any form — that they have an elasticity that goes beyond the descriptive. I am also quite certain that my poet-friends would agree with Carnwath’s declaration, which she has written across the surface of a number of her paintings, “Painting Is No Ordinary Object,” if they could substitute “poem” for “painting.” But, as these poets know, “painting” has an advantage over “poem” because it is both a noun and a verb, a thing and an action.
Although Carnwath is not a poet, she loves to use words in her paintings, especially lists. In a show of hers that I saw in New York at the now defunct David Beitzel Gallery more than a decade ago, I was especially taken with “Obit” (2000), a large square painting filled with the names of friends, fellow artists and strangers who had died. On a dirty, cream-colored ground Carnwath wrote six vertical rows of names in black paint, as well as the age they were when they died. Towards the bottom the names get smaller and smaller, as if Carnwath were trying to fit them all in. The act of writing down each name became the sentiment of the painting, the artist’s shaping of time in the face of the universe’s indifference.
Needless to say, no one bought the painting and she still owns it. I think I must have intuitively known when I saw ”Obit” that it was unlikely anyone would buy it, and admired her for showing it. More importantly, “Obit” isn’t nostalgic, ironic, hip, cool, smug, impervious or charming — all of which are familiar modes of presentation in New York. On more than one occasion it has occurred to me that our shared capacity for these aloof states and superior vantage points belies our fear of the opposite. We have no appetite for mortality, preferring objects that promise that everything — but moi — is disposable.
Like many artists I know, Carnwath writes notes to herself, which she tapes to the walls of her studio. These notes, which might say, “paint this red,” constitute a literal diary. This diary never gets into her paintings, which are diaristic but non-narrative, simultaneously complete and a collection of fragments — often resulting in a combination of language, symbolic iconography and abstract patterns.
Carnwath works on a number of paintings at once. When I visited her studio two weeks ago, I saw half-a-dozen large paintings — she likes to work on large, squarish formats — featuring an ocean liner, one end in the air, sinking. I remember her earlier images, some of which reappear in these paintings: an LP record; the Portland Vase, which is a Roman cameo vase, copied by Wedgewood in the late 18th century; an Etruscan Fayum funeral portrait; a sign asking if you have seen a lost pet; a bunny standing on his hind legs.
When Carnwath writes on her paintings — in a looping, child-like hand — she is recording things she has read, said or heard on the radio, which is playing while she is in her studio. She once wrote, “I’m sorry” over and over, filling the painting from top to bottom. Clearly, she wasn’t.
One widely held belief about Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings is they differed from their predecessors because they occupy the same physical space as the viewer. They are no longer windows, but, rather, they have become things or specific objects. Carnwath seems to be advancing that the corporeal space the painting occupies with the viewer is where the public and private are constantly colliding and getting entangled with each other, that the space isn’t simply physical, but also mental.
The space Carnwath’s paintings occupy is the one where information of all kinds is constantly being received. While the origin of these new paintings might be the Italian cruise liner, Costa Concordia, which ran aground and capsized two years ago, killing dozens of people, Carnwath’s sinking ship speaks to our shared anxiety as we await the next disaster. We don’t know whether it will be caused by man or nature, only that it will happen. The questions we silently ask: where, when, who, and how many.
Carnwath continually registers an awareness of vulnerability and mortality. She is unafraid of writing something direct and obvious in capital letters: “ALL OF US WERE YOUNG ONCE. BUT NOT ALL OF US WILL GROW OLD.” Her ability to render these words as hand-scrawled, scratchy letters on a trompe l’oeil sheet of blue-lined paper, thereby remaining true to the imagery’s likely source, grabs the viewer’s attention. It is an artifact from all our lives transformed into a buttery surface.
Carnwath is an excavator of our everyday, sifting through the detritus to see (and hear) an anonymous and collective cri de coeur in something as forgettable as a leaflet looking for a lost pet. Her use of language — which may cite from science and philosophy as much as the news of the day or things she’s overheard children say — runs the gamut, like her iconography, from subtle to blunt. This is also true of her iconography. And yet, what we might think shouldn’t work does, because of the pentimenti, the ghosts of images, the layering, and the play between legibility and illegibility, which we have to sort out. The elements in a Carnwath painting seem to add up and not add up. I am reminded of our kaleidoscopic, anxiety-riddled, postmodern experience. Her process of arriving at the final configuration requires her to cover over, take out and layer, to include remnants and hesitations. In her collage esthetic, I see many poetic parallels to ordinary experience, the river of fears running beneath what we stand on. Like Walt Whitman and other list makers before her, Carnwath sings the body electric.