Squeak Carnwath: paintings that trick the eye, poke a little fun
A review of "Here Is," an exhibition of paintings by Squeak Carnwath, at James Harris Gallery through July 7, 2012.
Special to The Seattle Times
Squeak Carnwath: 'Here Is'11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through July 7, James Harris Gallery, 312 Second Ave. S., Seattle: (206-903-6220 or www.jamesharrisgallery.com).
Things at James Harris Gallery are not what they seem.
In a number of Squeak Carnwath's paintings, there are what look like pages ripped out of school notebooks. They have messages scrawled on them in an awkward, uneducated hand: "You can't get good at something ... Become an expert at that thing without making a lot of mistakes," reads one, somewhat enigmatically. "Our brains run on only 12 watts of electricity," claims another. Look closely, however, and it is clear that these are not sheets of paper at all; the ruled lines are not printed, and the handwriting and pencil scribbles are not what they seem, either. The whole thing — like everything else in Carnwath's enchanting pictures — is brought into existence through the most sophisticated use of paint.
"There's no pencil at all," says the California-based artist with a wry smile. "I'm rather proud of that."
It turns out that another scrawled message, "The hand tells the truth," that appears in a painting called "Mistake," is actually a deliberate untruth. These pictures are not the work of a naive dauber, as Carnwath would have us believe. They weren't made so carelessly that those are really accidental drips from other paintings spattering their grubby surfaces.
Instead, the inept and ham-handed beginner who falls back on comic-book images of candelabra and sinking ships, and sometimes scrawls the titles of the pictures on the edge of the frame, is as much an invention as everything else in Carnwath's art — like a narrator in a novel. Or perhaps a series of related songs is a better comparison, because the recurrent motifs — the candelabra, the ships, the sheets of paper, as well as the unfinished color wheels, lengths of netting and old vinyl records that appear elsewhere — are reminiscent of repeated lines of lyrics, or melodic themes. Each time they are put together in novel ways, they conjure up new meanings as well as referring back to their previous uses.
In the painting called "Coast," almost the entire cast of Carnwath's current characters is laid out against a grape-hued background. A patch of mud-colored paint down the center suggests it might be a roughly repaired wall. The sinking ship recurs in five slightly different versions, like an increasingly frantic warning.
Below all of that — or it might be in a shallow foreground — are four odd shapes. Perhaps they are sculptures or ornate pots on stands. Or they could be little creatures watching what's going on in the picture. It is as though this time around, Carnwath not only invents an artist, she conjures up an audience for her art as well.
It's a little mind-boggling, though, that there is another bit of "free advice" scribbled mid-canvas: "When stuck or creatively blocked," it suggests, "play."
It's an excellent clue as to how we might respond to Carnwath's entertaining confusion.
Robert Ayers: email@example.com