This past July, artseen Editor John Yau visited Squeak Carnwath in her studio in Oakland, CA, to discuss her upcoming show at Nielsen Gallery, Boston (October 21 – November 25, 2006).
John Yau (Rail): Let’s begin with the motif of the Wedgewood vase that is in your recent paintings.
Squeak Carnwath: Okay, the Wedgewood is not a quote, but it is information gathered from what I read. I read a book on the Portland Vase, which inspired Viola Frey (1933-2004, Editor’s note)—she didn’t really use it like this- but the shape. She made enormous ones with this shape. When she died, I thought ‘Well, I’ll make this homage to her that’ll be private but funereal and stuff.’ I found this book that Viola never read because she wasn’t reading when it came out in 2004 or something. I only knew that Wedgewood made the Portland Vase, and nothing else. Well, I find it funny that someone is famous for a copy of something as opposed to being an originator. And I thought of ceramics because I’m a chauvinist…
Rail: You’re a painting chauvinist.
Carnwath: I am a painting chauvinist. But I’m also elitist because I think that paint is really a higher art form. There’s probably some secret competitiveness on my part because Viola was my friend. It’s funny to me that someone would be so taken with something that was a copy by another artist that was known for copying. Wedgewood gave one of the first copies to Charles Darwin’s father. It was supposed to be the funeral urn of Alexander the Great, and it has a great shape. I love that it was this dark black and white. Viola never used it as black and white. It was only the shape and then she would put her brightly colored figures all over it. I also loved that it was glass originally, and never clay.
Rail: Your new iconography also includes images of phonograph records.
Carnwath: Yes, I only show one side, so it’s sort of about mortality. We only go around once, though I do hold out hope for a second chance.
Rail: And you have a tree trunk, which you said comes from a folk belief in good luck, and an Etruscan head…
Carnwath: Which I also see as funereal, they evoke Fayum portraits, which I love.
Rail: And there’s this other part to your paintings, which is the writing. It’s both diaristic and non-narrative, which is a conundrum because we don’t see it as a painting diary.
Carnwath: The painting diary occurs on pieces of paper that live next to the paintings as I’m painting.
Rail: Yes, but sometimes they get into the painting.
Carnwath: Yes, but there is a real literal diary for the paintings, which I use as a reminder. It might say “make this blue” or “ cover it over with a glaze of, you know, yellow or something.” There is a literal diary that doesn’t get into the paintings.
Rail: I see the writing on the paintings as an interrogation: What is a painting, where does it come from?
Carnwath: And what is reality?
Rail: Yes, you’re interrogating this thing that you’re making. What does it do? Where does it come from? How does it function in the world? What kind of communication is it capable of? I would say that you’re trying to interrogate the limits of painting.
Carnwath: And still keep it all paint.
Rail: That’s the chauvinist side.
Carnwath: Yes, there’s some element of me that’s very rigid where this has to be all painting, it has to be on a flat surface, and be all paint. It can’t be pencil, crayon, or magic marker. It can’t be anything but paint.
Rail: Even when it looks like pencil, it’s paint. You’re also saying that painting can be anything and can absorb anything. That’s the bigger idea when you say you’re a chauvinist. It’s not this rigid idea about what a painting’s supposed to be, but it’s a belief about what a painting can absorb.
Carnwath: Yes, it can be absolutely any form, and take on any form.
Rail: As long as it’s on a flat surface and it’s made of paint.
Carnwath: For Elizabeth Murray a painting can be rounded and formed. You know, that’s a painting too. But for me, I’m interested in how you try to make something expansive within a limited framework. That’s why for me it’s flat and rectilinear or square or, you know, it has the conventions of what we think of as eighteenth century or earlier painting, but it doesn’t look like that.
Rail: What was your earlier work like? How did you get to this state. I guess what I’m asking is, was there ever a moment where you weren’t a painter with an iconography? Did you go from the pictorial to the iconographic? Or was it always iconographic.
Carnwath: I think it’s always been. Because I never really did like interiors, or you know, works of figures in interiors or outside. It was always this kind of disassociation between inside and outside and whether something was abstract or imagistic. So it had combinations of both, the same as it does now. And it always had to do with relationships and meaning. Like how things in combination create meaning. And how different images reveal affinities through the way they look.
Rail: The other thing you said which seems alchemical is how to take something that is negative and turn it into something else. The thing with the bunny; it seems like it’s a wounded figure. I mean you don’t literally show him wounded but you sense that he’s a character who feels lost and a little wounded. He’s not your classic innocent child bunny, but a bunny that’s been around the block.
Carnwath: He’s pathetic. There is that kind of repetition of trying to either claim a place or take care of something that is for me some kind of pain or wound.
Rail: Except for me I don’t think of the wound as being personal because I think that personal wounds can keep the viewer out. You know like, “I’m so wounded!”
Carnwath: Oh I don’t want him to appear that way. This is just for me to deal with, basically. Well there may be aspects where it comes across in the work, at least maybe for some people but I don’t want it to limit it that way.
Rail: I don’t think your paintings or images ask for empathy.
Carnwath: No, other than maybe in touch, in the way something is touched or its underneath or unspoken language. It’s the way somebody responds to a color, a texture, or the way something’s smeared across the canvas.
Rail: That’s different than asking for empathy. Because in Then, Now and When (2002), there’s that line about the boy who gets in a plane and crashes it into a building in Florida and other lines. And I thought, we have all these memories, some from reading in the paper some odd facts and what do we do with them? Why do they preoccupy us for long periods or keep surfacing? It’s partly some anxieties being expressed but it’s like a larger anxiety than a personal one.
Carnwath: That kid did it after 9-11. I remember thinking “What the fuck was that kid thinking?” Where were his parents and, I mean, it just seemed wacky to me, in a weird and profound way. You know it’s a suicide and so many other, loaded things.
Rail: There are a number of things that are like that in your work. We’re talking to them and they’re talking to us. That’s a kind of conversation that’s both visual and verbal and it goes back and forth and once we are pulled in, we have to say everything in this painting means something. And yet, it’s not over-determined, it’s not telling us how we’re supposed to read or see it. We have to negotiate our own way through the words and images. And there’s another, earlier painting, that I saw, where I felt like you were sitting in your studio and you copied down into the painting something that you heard on the radio that day.
Carnwath: Yes, there is a painting which says, “I heard on the radio about this guy who stabbed himself.”
Rail: That’s it. And it’s really interesting because what happens is the space the painting occupies becomes bigger.
Carnwath: Because it’s our space.
Carnwath: It’s all our space. It’s received information that we all have access to.
Rail: Right. And it influences us but we’re not sure how it affects us or gets under our skin. I mean, I just read something about how they wanted to poison pigeons in this hospital and then suddenly all these pigeons fell out of the sky and landed by the entrance and they had to shut the emergency room down. Part of me thought that was hilarious and part of me thought, “that’s awful.”
Carnwath: Exactly, it’s like absurd. Where was that?
Rail: Schenectady, NY.
Carnwath: Recently they did that?
Rail: It was on the news last night.
Carnwath: Oh I missed the news, darn. And they had to close down the emergency room because there were too many dead pigeons? It’s people’s lack of common sense. It’s like the “Big Dig” in Boston, all those tunnels, and I think about those bolts that they’ve only, as far as I can tell, epoxyed in. They don’t have a toggle that the bolt goes through, like even a cross. I’m not an engineer but it seems to me that if you want to hold up heavy pieces of concrete, you do more than just glue it in with a rod whether it’s got screws on it or not. You have to have something to anchor it. No anchor. Nothing. That amazes me. Why are we listening to these so-called experts?
Rail: And all that gets into your work but not in obvious ways.
Carnwath: No. I don’t want to preach. I just want to nag gently.
Rail: Okay, nag gently, but another thing that I thought about when I went to the San Francisco museum today was that your painting, within the history of West Coast painting, does not fit in anywhere.
Carnwath: Yes, I know that. That’s because I didn’t grow up here.
Rail: I don’t think it’s simply that.
Rail: No, because I don’t see your paintings fitting in elsewhere either. But I mean, just within the tradition of West Coast painting. I wouldn’t say you’re a West Coast painter just because you live here. You’re not identified by locale.
Carnwath: No, I’m not interested in West Coast painting, in the Bay Area Figurative or anything. I mean, I think it’s great but that isn’t what I work off of. I’m more interested in European painting and New York painting and maybe small patches of stuff. I love to make pilgrimages to see certain paintings, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald. And often it is just parts of those paintings that interest me. Like not the way that the painting is constructed necessarily, but the way the paint is on the canvas.
Rail: Okay, so what other pilgrimages have you made.
Carnwath: Oh, at the end of high school or the first year after college there was a Pollock retrospective at MoMA and I got my father to take me to that. I thought that was an amazing thing. And Ryder was another one. So it’s really like how other people apply this material and make visible their reality or their consciousness.
Rail: Part of the power of your painting is just the paint itself and the way it’s put on. It’s not sheets of paper in Then, Now and When. But the transformation through this medium called paint where the mark looks like a pencil or charcoal. That paint has to look like a pencil mark.
Carnwath: Yes it does.
Rail: And that’s not evident in your painting. I mean it’s not announced.
Carnwath: No, I don’t want it to be announced, I just want it to be part of the fabric of it. Kind of seem natural. I like looking at John F. Peto and Rembrandt paintings because I just love the way they nuzzle that paint around. In Rembrandt’s time he had to do figures because that was what was required, it was how you talked about reality and how you explained things. I don’t have to do that because we have TV and cameras. There’s not a verisimilitude of imagery, but it’s more of a feeling and touch that I have to get at. It has to feel and look like something we know in some way.
Rail: And at the same time seem casual.
Carnwath: Oh, it’s got to seem casual. Because it has to seem like it’s natural, like it just needs to be like that.
Rail: One more thing I realize is that you’re a process painter. In other words, you don’t have the whole thing in your head. It’s like I’ll move this, I’ll add this, and I’ll take this out.
Carnwath: I have no idea what a painting is going to look like. None. I’m kind of a collage painter because I’ll take things out, and put them back in. I move things around.
Rail: I would disagree on one level. I think a collage painter prefers to keep the ground fixed, and you often structure a complicated figure/ground relationship
Carnwath: I do work with that more than one might imagine. .
Rail: That makes them paintings, not collage. Your work distinguishes itself from collage because, at least this is how I think of it, a lot of painters have a fixed ground against which they place their images.
Carnwath: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I can even think of a few.
Rail: You’re not like that because the ground in your painting is always as important as the figure, and we have to kind of work our way through it.
Carnwath: I want it to seem like you can go back and forward, like there’s all this heavy air, and you can go push it.
Rail: So when you start a painting you don’t really know where it’s going. Maybe something’s on your mind that you want to get down, but by the time it’s finished whatever it was that was nagging you is not nagging you anymore.
Carnwath: Yes, it turns into something else. And I don’t want to know. I used to want to know more. I used to sketch things out a little more. But that is when I was a student and I would see what it looked like. I can’t really visualize in advance. But when I was a student I’d have a loose sketch and then I would go from there. I never did it in color. It was always very simple. But I don’t like making something from something else. That’s boring to me. And I like not knowing. It makes me a little nervous and afraid and I find that exhilarating.
Rail: One of the other thoughts I had was that some artists or writers make work that gets them to deal with a living with a state of anxiety.
Carnwath: I’m a little like that.
Rail: And not close off that anxiety. You have to find a solution to that anxiety. And that seems to be really part of what your process is. One of the things that happened in Post-War painting is that many artists didn’t want to deal with anxiety anymore, and developed a method of dealing with it. Take Frank Stella. He gets this idea that gets him out of anxiety and he never has to deal with it again. You know in some simple way one could divide artists between those who can live with anxiety and those who can’t.
Carnwath: That makes sense. Because I think a lot of people actually can’t.
Rail: One of the things that strikes me about your paintings is that they’re a series of contradictions. On one hand they seem casual. On the other, they’re not casual at all.
Rail: You know, each time I’m about to make some kind of definitive statement about your work I have to contradict it.
Rail: Like these are diaristic paintings but they’re not really diaries at all because diaries are narrative. I think that opens up the space a lot for the viewer. The viewer can’t say, “oh, it’s this or that.” It’s both this and that.
Carnwath: Exactly. I see the world that way. That’s perfect.
Rail: I didn’t realize that you work in such different scales.
Carnwath: Oh, you mean big and little?
Carnwath: I mean I do work on different scales…well, there’s no little ones that have gotten done lately. So I do work more on these bigger and kind of what I call medium size paintings. But the little ones, it’s just because I have this adversity to letting them go. That’s part of it. It’s not worth it to let them go.
Carnwath: I use the prints for the small. In my mind prints occupy the small part. I do think an artist should actually work in different sizes like small, medium and large. I mean, your head can occupy the small, that size.
Rail: And big is your body.
Carnwath: And big is your body and medium is, I think medium is the hardest to operate because it occupies only part of your body. Like either just from your neck to your knees or from your head to the top of your genitals or, I mean, it’s a weird kind of scale and size. American painters, we have this repressed culture and history, and that’s the scale at which we are most repressed. And so I think it’s harder to deal with.
Rail: Oh, okay.
Carnwath: It’s this weird theory I have about that size.
Rail: Oh, I think you probably have more theories about painting than you’re letting on. And what are you working on now?
Carnwath: You know when people ask me what I’m working on, I’m always envious that an artist can just say, “Well, I’m doing this, this, this, and this.” And I can never do that. And part of it is because I really don’t know what I’m doing.
Rail: So how do you know when it’s done?
Carnwath: It feels done. I really know when it’s done. There’s nothing more I want to do to it. I’ve had it. It’s finished. And when I’m done, I’m done. I don’t decide a few years later I’m going to go back to it. It’s done. It’s cooked. It’s out of there. I’m amazed that other artists can get a painting back and then decide they’re going to work on it some more. I have no desire to do that. I should, maybe. But it’s not in my nature. I’d rather start a new one and see if I can get what ever it is. If I think that I should do something else then it should happen in a new painting. But, it’s just a feeling. And also a kind of exhaustion that everything has been used up for that canvas that needs to be used or put in it or taken out of it. So I’m working on the same old thing basically.
Rail: So they all have their own trajectory in a way.
Carnwath: Well, I don’t know what the trajectory is, really.
Rail: Or you suspect you know.
Carnwath: I suspect. I start out, like a painting could start out and if I don’t know where to go, I’ll just cover it over. Totally.
Rail: And yet the viewer might feel like you just went from A to Z. Your work often looks that way…
Carnwath: I want it fresh. Isn’t that fresh? Shouldn’t it be fresh?
Rail: I think Sir Philip Sidney said people would appreciate poems more if they knew how much the poet threw out and changed.
Carnwath: But that’s such an odd thing. I know people who think painting is playing and it’s easy, and it’s not, you know, “Look, this is so playful,” it’s “so childlike” or “My kid could do that.” All those things they say. People have a weird thing about labor, and the evidence of labor.
Carnwath: I don’t think we need to see all the hammer marks.
Rail: John Ashbery once said to me that one reason a lot of people dislike poets associated with the New York School is because they let the reader know that they are having fun while writing. But that doesn’t mean there is no labor involved.
Carnwath: No, people don’t like to know that you’re having fun. And I think that I am having fun doing this. It’s not always easy but I think it should be fun. I really do. Play and labor go together. I don’t need to take everyone into my sick psyche. I do not. And actually, that black and white painting that says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over started out completely different.
Rail: I would not have suspected that.
Carnwath: I just covered it over when Gary asked me something and I started writing that. And I’m going, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and then I liked it and I just kept doing it and doing it.
Rail: Repetition made it become something else completely, you know, because it goes beyond the bounds of all decency, so to speak.
Carnwath: And because I couldn’t write it in a straight line, it’s got this weird kind of wound at the bottom that’s just perfect for the words that was just totally accidental or intuitive, we don’t know. Or channeled, you just don’t know.
Rail: Well, I think that’s what I was getting at earlier. On one level these paintings are diaristic and on another level, they are totally about channeling.
Carnwath: Absolutely, I do think we are receivers for something and I know it’s a hokey magical thing but I think that one of the things that artists know how to do is put the foil on top of their head and get the information. You know?
Rail: Oh, I believe you. I have no problem with that.