pt.2 Gallery in Oakland presents paintings and works on paper by Squeak Carnwath. This series of work from the early 1980s focuses on earth, fire, water, and air. Greek philosophers used to explain and classify the Universe using these four elements. Carnwath began incorporating symbols into her work in the late 1970s, and her work in the early 1980s formed a launching point for a deeper exploration of icons that hold both universal and personal meaning.

Symbols can serve a few purposes: as pictoral alternatives to written text, where they can be easily identified and decoded into a universal understanding, or as supplements to text, where the words and the imagery work in tandem. Carnwath employs both tactics throughout her work. 

For example, the painting The Moon in a Pool depicts a moon reflected in a rippling body of water. Short, multi-directional brushstrokes form a dense focal point of an abstracted composition with concentric rings and brushy black shapes. The tiny fish making up the white moon’s anthropomorphized mouth gives viewers the first hint that the surrounding rings of black and gray represent water, but the text “the moon in a pool,” written in blocky text around the margin of the image, really inform the viewer. In this way, reading, in concert with looking, deepens understanding of the composition.

In A Kind of Fire, a big X shape covers the word “of” in the text around the border of the composition, acting as a deliberate move. She could have covered the text, erasing an error, but she chose to leave the information in. So the text can be read as “A Kind of Fire” or “A Kind Fire,” which yield two different interpretations. In the first, the candle depicted is one kind of fire, a literal example. In the second, it suggests candlelight as a tame version of fire, implying other kinds of fire exist, like wild and of out-of-control blazes. In both readings, Carnwath brings the viewer back to a philosophical observation about how we observe the concept of fire, and the many perspectives it elicits. People from different backgrounds will invariably interpret the same symbol using their own biases and lived experiences for context.

Squeak Carnwath draws upon the philosophical and mundane experiences of daily life in her paintings and prints, which can be identified by lush fields of color combined with text, patterns, and identifiable images. She has received numerous awards including the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, two Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Award for Individual Artists from the Flintridge Foundation, and the Lee Krasner Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. In 2019, she was inducted into the National Academy of Design and Art. Carnwath is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives and works in Oakland, CA.