I have been a fan of Squeak Carnwath ever since I saw her painting “Obit” (2000) in a now-defunct Soho gallery nearly 20 years ago. I have been to her studio in Oakland, California numerous times; interviewed her for The Brooklyn Rail (November 2006); contributed an essay to the catalogue of her survey show, Squeak Carnwath: Painting Is No Ordinary Object, at the Oakland Museum (April 25–August 23, 2009), organized by Karen Tsujimoto; included two of her paintings in Painting Is Not Doomed To Repeat Itself, a show that I organized for Hollis Taggart (September 24–October 31, 2015); and reviewed her debut show, What Before Comes After, at Jane Lombard Gallery (October 22, 2015–January 6, 2016).
Carnwath is always receptive to what is going on around her, from events in the daily news to things seen in the street — or, in this case, during a residency in Ireland. The artist’s second show at Jane Lombard Gallery, Squeak Carnwath: Not All Black and White, was completed after the 2016 Presidential election. The change in our social fabric, as well as the heightened threat of extinction of animals, the effects of climate change, and the results of currently lax policies about gun ownership in the US all find a place in Carnwath’s work. And yet, despite the cris de coeur animating the paintings, they never felt didactic.
Carnwath’s three works from her residency in Ireland, incorporating gouache and graphite on polypropolene, are what I would call “diaristic.” In a number of works from this residency, she drew a map of County Mayo from memory. At the top of “How Many Greens” (2018) are rows of lozenge-like shapes, each a particular green, spanning the surface, while in the lower left-hand corner are a series of small brushstrokes demonstrating the colors that can be mixed to make green. She writes in the work, “How many greens can you see in a day?” Having spent time in Ireland on two occasions, and having certainly seen a lot of green there, I wondered: how many greens do we actually see in a day? What are our powers of discernment? Is Carnwath acknowledging the possibility that the world exceeds our powers of description?
The question raises all sorts of concerns, starting with one’s ability to distinguish different shades and hues. How well do we see what is in front of us, especially as we get older? And, by extension, how much of the world around us do we actually see. The latter question is very different than thinking about the world around us in terms of its use value. I think what distinguishes Carnwath’s diaristic works from those of others working in this vein is that her observations don’t seem rooted in an “I” that we can equate with the artist. Rather, the questions she asks and the information she addresses include the viewer. If anything — and this is one of the artist’s great strengths — her work is open and inviting.
Carnwath’s paintings are comprised of layers of warm whites on which she draws and writes, always in paint — what may look like a pencil mark is actually masterful trompe l’oeil. This means that every mark, no matter how casual it appears, was deliberated over. A painting may look nonchalantly assembled, a mark quickly jotted down, but that is never the case.
The large square painting, “Tools for Poetry” (2017), is divided vertically into two roughly equal areas. On the left side, beneath the heading “PRETTY WORDS,” is a list of over 50 words, including “ambergris,” “vestigial,” dulcet,” “crepuscular,” and “acataphasia,” which I learned means, “a loss of the ability to express oneself using organized syntax.” On the right side, she has painted a trompe l’oeil sheet of lined yellow paper with two statements “written” on it in a mixture of capital and lowercase letters:
We are always in the middle of death as we go through life.
They are forever linked together: life and death. The same coin.
A few lines down on the painted “paper,” the artist has written:
Not only do bees have facial recognition (like me), they are smart and
and can roll a bee sized ball and can teach other bees to roll the ball too. Bee games?
Elsewhere in the same painting are short entries on dolphins, the hanging of women who resisted rape in India, and wild boars: “Wild boars have taken over Fukushima and are ruining the countryside. They are also radioactive. Authorities kill them, bury them but they’re running out of space to bury them.” Images of a sinking ship and a pale gray glass peek through the splatters and drips.
This is what Carnwath does best: She collects bits of information from a wide range of sources that, when put together, feel like notes for an overarching statement, which she never makes. At times, the paintings feel like they are pages both in a notebook and on the artist’s studio wall. Her paintings often have paint splatters on their dirty white surfaces, diagrams that look like they’ve been lightly painted over, drawings, lists, and statements. Some of the statements might be written on a sheet of trompe l’oeil paper, while others are done directly on the surface, and still others are partially obscured by drips of paint.
Carnwath’s paintings are diaries not only of her life but also of their coming into being. Completed after the 2016 election, they contain a wide array of alarming information (“3% of the American population owns all the guns in America”), notes (“Dear Sheila Murphy, I remember your child”), and urgent requests (“Send Help Please”), mixed with visual motifs that the artist has accumulated over the years.
Instead of becoming strident, as one might expect of an artist dealing with such toxic information, Carnwath remains as dispassionate as possible; this, paradoxically, adds to the passion running through the paintings. Carnwath includes information as citations, rather than personal, clarion calls to action. In this way, the bits of information we encounter in her paintings evoke a collective urgency in the face of various impending extinctions, culminating with human beings.
Carnwath’s written details connect through association while her writing pulls you into the painting because the letters are often deliberately small. Her openness to the world is a rare thing in a commodity-driven scene that values distraction and silliness over responsibility.
The paintings are complemented by a 26-part series of gouache paintings on paper titled, “Alphabet for a Season of Corruption” (2018–2019), and installed on three walls in the back gallery. President Trump’s unmistakable profile is in a number of these works, as well as three Klu Klux Klansmen in their robes (paired with letter “K,” naturally), a clown for “C,” and the bare legs of a high-heeled woman, seen from the knees down, a shower of yellow drops falling between the legs (for “S,” in case you are wondering). Humor, anger, fear, worry, and bafflement — these are just some of the feelings that Carnwath’s paintings provoke in this viewer. Years from now, when someone wishes to know what it was like to live in the first years after the 2016 presidential election, they should look at Carnwath’s paintings: they are true barometer of our times.
Squeak Carnwath: Not All Black and White continues at Jane Lombard Gallery (518 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 30.