New York

View of “Squeak Carnwath,” 2019. From left: Unlock Love, 2018; Send Help, 2017; No Longer, 2017; Message in a Bottle, 2018.

View of “Squeak Carnwath,” 2019. From left: Unlock Love, 2018; Send Help, 2017; No Longer, 2017; Message in a Bottle, 2018.

Squeak Carnwath

I walked into Squeak Carnwath’s exhibition just after hearing Carolee Schneemann had died. Raw from the loss of an artist who refused to smooth out her contradictions in the service of easy consumption, I was particularly receptive to the stimulating and unapologetic mixture of fatalism, anger, and humor that characterizes Carnwath’s work, much as it does Schneemann’s. Certainly, I had underestimated the Oakland, California–based artist’s ferocity.

Carnwath builds her paintings on grounds of milky white, cream, beige, and light gray, layering alkyd oil colors so that the surface becomes a dense fog from which her rudimentary scrawls and visual motifs emerge. The palette may be muted, but the sentiment is not. Take Tools for Poetry, 2017, a painting almost six feet by six feet that’s bisected by an irregular gray line. On the left-hand side is a column of fifty-four PRETTY WORDS written in all caps save for the letter D. The inclusion of MALODOROUS, LACHRYMOSE, and DEFENESTRATION makes the list darker and more complex than Carnwath’s heading implies. On the right is a compendium of her symbols: a sinking ship, a glass half full, a Necker cube, and a trompe l’oeil sheet of notebook paper on which the artist has scribbled: WE’RE ALWAYS IN THE MIDDLE OF DEATH AS WE GO THROUGH LIFE. This philosophical musing, both profound and obvious, is followed by thoughts regarding the intelligence of bees. We read that the insects can roll tiny balls. BEE GAMES? Carnwath asks in response. The pairing of these notions seems absurd at first. Yet they are curiously relatable, as if the mind, unable to focus on mortality, simply turned its attentions to something else. Below that is a crude drawing of two naked women hung upside down from a tree, which forces us to grapple with death once more. And despite the pewter, cerulean, sienna, and white drips that cover the entire canvas—as they did in the majority of her paintings in this show—there is no attempt to distill her thoughts into a single emotion or voice for the comfort of the viewer.

The artist’s previous exhibition at Jane Lombard Gallery in 2015 presented work spanning two decades, giving the viewer a broad introduction to her practice. By contrast, all of the pieces in this show were made during the past three years, and all asserted explicit furor at President Donald Trump. Rallying cries for gun control and women’s reproductive rights appeared in many of the paintings, along with the general feeling that America is topsy-turvy, as represented by an inverted outline of the United States. Several works also included a rendering of the president’s coarse profile (We Still Have Music and No Longer, both 2017) or phrases about his administration’s overturning of environmental regulations (Send Help, 2017). Alphabet for a Season of Corruption, 2018–19, is a caustic primer on the president, in which Carnwath pairs a letter with an illustration done in electric pinks, greens and yellows, from a as in ass to z as in zit. Bully, clown, dick: The anger burns across these twenty-six panels. The artist is by no means alone in her fury. The fiery works in her show positioned her most directly alongside Judith Bernstein, Martha Rosler, Schneemann, and Martha Wilson, strong feminist artists whose work is both earnest and ruthless in its mocking of the buffoon in power. These women serve as critical examples of how to instrumentalize rage, even though they still risk being dismissed as overly emotional. Carnwath’s paintings prove, however, that she will not be pushed aside.