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Squeak Carnwarth: David Beitzel Gallery.

O-o-oh, California, la-la-la. . . .

Squeak Carnwath's paintings speak clearly of that other coast, at least to a provincial New Yorker who knows of it only what he reads. She also makes me think of Joni Mitchell circa 1971: not yet completely posthippie, but with a gorgeous command that clashes with her pose of naivete. Carnwath, I suspect, knows that her nonart ideas - her philosophical thumb-suckers, her Eastern mysticism, her fretting over ecology, her generalized upset with violence, misogyny, intolerance, and the whole caboodle of things she calls "bad stuff" - demand some kind of subtlety of presentation if they are not to seem hopelessly adolescent. Her solutions: on the one hand, an oil-and-alkyd lushness; on the other, a willed flower-child clunkiness. The buttery surfaces of this artist's work are something to see. As for the words painted into them, and the deliberate, again childlike unevennesses of their smudgy colors and geometries, these are sometimes coy; just as often, though, they dare expression that another artist would shun, fearing to look foolish.

The language too has range. Painted into that picture called Bad Stuff, 1995, are catalogues of good and evil: the evil runs from guns and racism to Chernobyl, the good from trust to a "no smoking" sign. Similarly, Big Worries (A Partial List), 1995, lists cancer, falling off a horse, filovirus, bad dreams, loneliness, bunions, earthquakes, and chicken fat as visual equivalents. (The biggest worry of all, judging from the letters' size, is calories.) There is a nice awareness in these knowing, witty juxtapositions and transitions of tone. Pathos and bathos, the life-threatening and the trivial, might cancel each other, even antagonize us, if clumsily aligned; here, each acts as the scale for the other's weight. Likewise in Oh the Winter, 1996, the details of a horror story heard on the radio, about a bomb and a burning car, balances the Hallmark Card risks of Carnwath's poetry - "Oh the Winter/grey and greyer/Greyish/ and with the shade the burden of joy" - against the vocabulary, and the nightmare, of contemporary America.

Just as Carnwath's favored literary form may be the list, her picture structures tend toward visual equivalents of the list's logical progressions and orders: grids and compartments (though never mechanically precise ones; the vagaries of the hand are almost a mannerism here). Oh the Winter, for example, is divided into a series of bands and boxes, each supplied with irregular horizontal rows of words and shapes - lines of red brain forms, say, each holding a knobby triangle that could be someone's nose, could be a woolly hat, and is in fact a Buddha. It is as if transcendental aspiration would be embarrassing if expressed straight, so it's tempered with shades of the nursery. Once the viewer is disarmed this way, the richness of the work's texture and color will still make the point - a subliminal sublime.

- DF
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Title Annotation:art exhibit
Author:Frankel, David
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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