Squeak Carnwath and the Thoughts You Should be Writing Down

Squeak Carnwath’s exhibit, “Crazy Papers and Sister Objects,” that just opened at the Katzen Arts Center is everything I love about art. It is earnest, unapologetic, socially impactful, thought-provoking, and beautiful. Carnwath, an artist and Berkeley professor, delivers a collection that I will visit frequently while it is here and one I’ll consider for a long time. The exhibit features a series of large oil paintings along with over 300 “Crazy Papers,” some framed, but most pinned up to the wall in large masses.


The papers, created by Carnwath between 1982 and 2016, are a collection of painting ideas, sketches, stories, grocery lists, ideas, song quotes, poetry, rants of thought, questions, splotches of paint, to-do lists, references, scientific current events, political activism, and beyond. Each sheet is entirely unique and stands on its own, throwing the viewer into Carnwath stream of consciousness. Carnwath used the papers for her work as well as her life.

It was the “Crazy Papers” part of this exhibit that had me cracking up, wide-eyed, curious, learning, and a little weepy. Despite the name likely ringing ableist to some, Carnwath’s word choice takes the negative connotations away from “crazy” and makes anyone relate to it. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of secretly reading an older sibling’s diary, deciphering their handwriting, and feeling like you’ve grown closer at the end, this exhibit emanates that feeling. They are work that was intended for the artist and not necessarily for an audience, making them an honest insight told through stories into Carnwath’s mind, her ideas, and her life. These papers are not a quick read; you could spend an hour in this exhibit looking at each one, relating to it, picking things out, and finding patterns.

Carnwath’s work is unpretentious. It doesn’t take itself too seriously in spite of frequently dark and serious content (old age and death play important roles in her work).  It is humorous and unapologetic. Carnwath is fascinated with mark making, whether it’s finger painting, scribbling, or writing (she loves her handwriting). As proved by the action painters of the 50s, making these marks often reveals more about the artist. When Carnwath is angry, you feel it in her hard-pressed letters, spurting in all sorts of directions.

When making a reference to a story or element of culture, Carnwath puts herself inside the narrative. In the piece below, she takes a line from Macbeth, “Out out Damned Spot!” (said by Lady Macbeth as she feels guilt over the murders she egged on and tries to wash her hands clean of blood) and places it over a newspaper clipping detailing a murder suicide. Carnwath makes her own handwritten version of a newspaper clipping saying “I wasn’t there” and calling it “a crime of passion,” referring to the man who shot his wife and her boyfriend as “the man in love.” On the right, she writes snippets of lyrics from the national anthem under some buzz terms, “liberty,” “justice,” “freedom,” etc. On the bottom she plans dimensions and materials for another painting.

In some of her papers, she plans out ideas that could be used in paintings, even charting them out in grids and preparing exact symbols. Despite this, Carnwath does not plan her paintings out like many artists do. The “Crazy Papers” just stand as little notes to express her thoughts that then could be transferred over to her work. In one below, we also get an insight into Carnwath opinions on art as she takes her time to thoroughly explain, as if to a child, “Art does not need to be smooth. Art is not a car or a bicycle. Art does not move through space, so it doesn’t need to worry about drag or speed. Cars and bicycles do.”

By presenting the papers in a gallery, they themselves become art. Doing this not only gives insight into the artistic process, the context of the art, and the brain of the artist, but it also invigorates the viewers into making “art” themselves. Especially if scraps of paper and daily thoughts can be art, the field becomes much more accessible. Seeing Carnwath’s process of writing and drawing her ideas out on little pages encourages viewers to be more organized themselves, to keep track of their good ideas, to not be afraid to “waste” paper. In one paper, she writes out the Fibonacci sequence, doing the math by hand until it doesn’t fit on the page. In the one pinned above it, Squeak writes that cheese in Russia is about $45/lb (it isn’t). In another she writes out a paragraph on “tampon technology” on the battlefield of Iraq. Her thoughts are limitless, encompassing a wide range of issues and having no consistent tone other than honesty.

Along with the Crazy Papers, Squeak Carnwath has a series of paintings in the exhibit. These mostly colorful, abstract works layered with representational images, feature themes and symbols that often repeat themselves (which is itself a theme, as Carnwath is interested in exploring copied and replicated ideas and art).

In Two of Everything, the title sets an overarching theme for the piece. Carnwath’s fascination with duplicity is present through many of her pieces. At the artist lecture held at Katzen, Carnwath told the story behind the Portland Vase that appears in several works usually done with a stencil, making the image a near precise replica each time. The vase, dated back to 25 AD, has . Josiah Wedgewood, a potter, spent time at the museum meticulously drawing it in order to make a perfect replica. Eventually he rendered a near identical copy which made him famous as a potter and artist. In 1845, someone came to the British Museum where the original vase was held, and shattered the case and the vase inside of it. Carnwath’s connection to the story is through her mentor, Viola Frey, another sculptor, who was very fond of the Portland Vase as well as Wedgewood’s work. Anyway, the point of the story is that this person became famous for duplication. In a Carnwath painting, Language is Limited, a note reads “Good ideas are stolen not made.”

Two of Everything, 2014, Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 60 x 70 in

In the top left corner is a recognizable image, the famous optical illusion that could be a duck or a rabbit and is neither and both at the same time. Carnwath’s work deals with trompe-l’œil, which means “deceive the eye,” and in art it means something that looks 3D but isn’t (often this is found in hyperrealist pieces). Instead of doing this through realism, Carnwath makes fun of the whole concept by painting stacks of structured cubes that clearly aren’t 3D as well as other images. In an interview Squeak says painting is “an activity that occurs between the painter and the paint and the surface. It’s just this thin film of stuff only millimeters thick, really thin—but it’s really deep—which is what I love about it. It’s something that appears real, but if you were to take it apart, deconstruct it, you find it’s just this little layer of dirt, of pigment.”

There are two ships, half sunk on a 45 degree angle with the caption “half full half empty,” a recurring image in Cornwath’s work. There are two vases, two hands, two images of two people kissing, there’s only one vinyl record, but we know it has two sides. There are two grids of color; one composed, the other exploded. The painting is composed beautifully with your eyes traveling the piece comfortably while picking up symbolism and reading a visual story.

Another recurring image in both her paintings and her Crazy Papers is the number 102 (circled in a deep blue in Two of Everything, expressed through tally marks. The number is often circled, evoking the image of circling an important day on your calendar and counting to it. The childlike method of doing math and being patient contrasts with the content matter revolving around loss and aging.

The text in Carnwath’s work functions to slow down the viewer to make them pay attention compared to many gesture paintings where the content is thrown at the viewer at once. When the text is harder to read, the viewer squints and gets closer to the painting to derive meaning, often times still leaving without knowing what the words say. Jean-Michel Basquiat was famous for crossing out a lot of the text in his painting, getting the viewer to pay even more attention to read it. Text in paintings also gives the painter power over what is private and public because they can make things impossible to read for anyone else, leaving part of their painting kept private and creating a barrier between the audience and the artist. Sometimes text is emphasized with circles or arrows, the artist directly guiding the viewer in the experience of the piece.

Carnwath happily told the listeners at her artist lecture why she chose the symbols she did but noted that the symbols morph over time and can’t be interpreted as an “a equals b” thing in her work. She prefers viewers to make their own connections within the pieces, finding different meanings, letting them find their own definitions in her work instead of it being prescribed to them. In a conversation with Richard Whittaker, Carnwath says, “If I want to have a house in a painting, I can just write the word “house.” You’ll know what it is, and using the word doesn’t limit the idea of “house.” It will be “all houses” instead of a particular house. And also that way it’s not just “my house,” but the beholder’s house. The sign for house, which is the word, is owned by anybody reading it. I like to use language so the form of address is not limited to my voice, really.” For the “Crazy Papers”, Carnwath notes that they can be arranged in any fashion on the wall, further removing herself from directing the interpretation of her work.

The Whole Truth, 2008, Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel, 90 x 80 in

Squeak Carnwath’s work is amongst the most interesting, intelligent, tender, and aesthetically pleasing exhibits I’ve seen. Go to Katzen and spend some time deciphering a mind and learning about your own. The exhibition will be on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center until December 18th, 2016 along with other exhibitions.


1 Comment

  1. After reading your amazing analysis, feeling the depth of your insights into Squeak’s work, I realize what a tragedy it was to miss this show. Thank you for writing so eloquently about art and sharing pieces of it with us. Your writing is both intelligent and tender, as well.


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