San Francisco

Squeak Carnwath

Fuller Goldeen Gallery

The critical response to this Bay Area artist’s paintings (and previously to her ceramic sculpture) displays a common ambivalence toward what art historian Robert Goldwater has termed “emotional primitivism.” Carnwath’s repeated focus on a single female figure, in fantastic environments and surrounded by symbolic elements, exudes a darkly obsessive air which at once suggests an infantile state of self-absorption and the projection of an intelligent artist struggling to clarify her consciousness of being in the world. Those unwilling to delve into the ambiguities of the unconscious or to decipher the symbols through which it is manifested may be put off by these enigmatic scenes. Yet the tensions they radiate, as well as the idea of one role of art being to offer connection with inner sources of knowledge, provide strong enticements to engage with the work, and to attempt to decode its effect.

Carnwath’s awareness of her dualistic procedure is evident through her self-reflexively titling a major 1983 painting Primitive Act. The work depicts a nude young woman knee-deep in dark swirling water, holding in her lap a broad pot decorated with primitivist hatching. All three parts of this triad—woman, vessel, and water—connote the feminine, and also the unconscious. Bare, splintery branches extend into a white sky of fervent brushstrokes glimmering with red and orange underpainting; together, these suggest an apocalyptic devastation such as that of the Biblical flood, a theme associated with expressionist imagery since Dürer. The figure hunches her shoulders and furtively glances behind her at the huge sun, which is emblazoned with numbers like a clock but which lacks both the number seven—the symbol of perfect order—and its hands, as if time cannot be told, or stands still (but at no particular hour). A sense of timelessness results, of watching the movement of the sun (which, being cyclical, is essentially unchanging), and thus of a fundamental state, a “primitive” one. The image also concerns both the condition of being within the waters of the unconscious and that of standing above it, of getting a grip on it through the firm grasp on the container of water. It evokes an exploration of the dialectics of consciousness, yet the title’s “primitive act” could also refer to that of making marks on a surface, another universal way of ordering experience.

Not all the 13 paintings and drawings match the direct power of this image and its multilayered allusions; a few, such as Time Lost, 1983, and Window Out, 1983–84, convey black moods of sadness and little beyond a generalized sense of despair. But in most cases Carnwath has sought to find commonly shared symbolism with which to transfigure private anxieties. Also, in contrast to the “emotional primitivism” of the images’ sources, the simple, bold titles she paints at the top and bottom edges of her canvases reveal a didactic urge to communicate with, or even exhort, her viewers, as in a work titled Keep Too Deep, 1983. The artist clearly sees her role as an exponent of images proceeding from the unconscious, and in her strongest work she devises effective narrative structures that make one want to delve into the mysteries.

Suzaan Boettger