Squeak Carnwath’s works are ruminations on time, place, and human presence. Within her images Carnwath constructs a unique vocabulary of pictographs and hieroglyphs that constitute a personal index of meaning. The repetition of these symbols, shapes, and colors, within each painting and across her body of work, is meditative; her simple objects become mantras through the act of painting them over and over. As Carnwath explains, “Painting is a philosophical enterprise in which through a kind of alchemy inert material becomes something else - a document of being, a repository of the human spirit.”
In addition to her vocabulary of saturated colors and repetitive symbols, a recurring theme in Carnwath’s work is the use of writing: a name or phone number, a humorous anectdote, a seemingly plain statement about painting or art. The words she uses are often neither descriptive nor explanatory. She has said that the words’ shapes are more important than their actual meanings. Words are emphasized as a form of abstract iconography, transforming didactic or simple sentences into metaphors for universal or spiritual concepts.
While many viewers see Carnwath’s works as cryptic she feels there is too much emphasis in the art world on understanding the artist’s intentions. What she is attempting to communicate is personally driven. As an artist she is more interested in understanding her own unmediated narrative and psychology than she is with the viewer fully understanding the impetus for the work.
Carnwath explores simple truths or concepts that might be meaningful to a child but dismissed by adults as naïve or obvious. She often uses shapes and colors as a way to draw in the viewer in hopes that they start free associating towards something that is familiar and begin to make sense of the imagery as it relates to their own life. As Squeak says, “I like the elasticity of symbols and the fact that people read them in different ways.
Squeak Carnwath is an internationally renowned artist whose paintings were the focus of a major exhibition surveying the past 15 years of her career at the Oakland Museum of California in the summer of 2009. Carnwath received her Master of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1977. She taught at the University of California, Davis for 15 years and in 1998 became Professor in Residence in the Department of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley where she continues to teach while maintaining a studio in Oakland.
Carnwath's accomplishments have been recognized with numerous grants and awards, including a Flintridge Foundation award in 2002, a 1994 fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's 1980 SECA award. Her work has been featured in major periodicals, including ARTnews, Artforum, Art in America and the New York Times. Her work has been the subject of two monographs: Squeak Carnwath: Lists, Observations & Counting published in 1996, and Squeak Carnwath: Painting is No Ordinary Object, published in 2009. Her works are found in many prestigious collections including the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco MOMA, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, among others.