Interviewsand Articles


Advocate of the Unwatched Life: A Conversation with Squeak Carnwath

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2004



photo - r. whittaker

Squeak Carnwath is one of the Bay Area's best known artists. Her work has been widely exhibited and she has received numerous awards and grants. At the time of this interview, first published in 1993, Carnwath was a member of the art faculty at the University of California at Davis. In 1998, she moved to the art faculty at UC Berkeley. She is now retired from teaching. Her work can be seen at the Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco or the Dorothy Goldeen Gallery in Los Angeles.—Richard Whittaker, 2007

works:  There are so many people who graduate with MFA’s, but after five years not many are left who are really working at art. It’s a difficult path to follow.

Squeak Carnwath:  I think it has to do with...I’ll give you an example, when I was at Djerassi, there was a guy there for dinner who is on the board of directors. He has an MFA in ceramics. He came to California to do art, and he found that he didn’t get the support he was looking for. I think that what people fail to realize is that it has to be self-generated, self-supporting—in terms of having the will to go to the studio every day and face it. He decided it was a lifestyle he didn’t want to live. He wanted to have a family. He didn’t want to have a day job, and he didn’t want to make the sacrifices. And I think that no matter what, there’s a certain amount of sacrifice one has to make to make art...and I guess a lot of people aren’t willing to do that. For me, it’s challenging and rewarding. I get to be alone, and it’s a kind of privilege and permission. I am not interested in living a life like my parents did—being a model citizen from the outside. I don’t mind being a model citizen inside, but I don’t care about living in a neighborhood, coming home at the same time of day, and all that stuff.

works:  The outer conventions...

SC:  Right. And I think there are people who want to have the outer conventions and make art, but they don’t realize how much time it takes, how much unrewarded time is involved—unrewarded by outside standards. In our culture it’s only good if it sells. You know, if someone can make money from it then it’s valuable. I don’t think that attitude will sustain anyone for long. When a lot of people get an MFA, they think they’re going to get a job, that it’s a guarantee of a certain success, and it’s not. I don’t think people realize how hard it is. If you have a day job and a life, it’s like having three jobs, when you add the studio time to the equation.

works:  It’s hard enough to earn money first of all, but secondly, maybe few realize how hard it is to arrive at that intangible place one hopes to find in the work itself.

SC:  And that has to do with self-trust...a person learns to trust their own instincts, to believe in what they’re doing—not what other people think. When people are in school, they’re geared towards what other people think. That’s what happens in school. Others are making determinations about who gets the scholarship or the grant...what studio they’re going to be put into and so on, and when people get out of school they think the art world will determine these things. You know, school’s great because one is taken care of in that sort of psychic way which allows a person to experiment and try things. But when a person gets out of school, she has to create her own safe environment so she can take risks in her own life.

works:  Can you say more about taking risks?

SC: taking risks I mean doing things that the artist wants to do, not what is determined by the outside. I think it’s about believing in yourself and not being influenced by the public side.

works:  When you say "trust in yourself," you’re talking about trusting that a certain process will occur. One can’t really say exactly what it is.

SC:  No. If I knew, then I could bottle it. Trust that I’ll breathe. Or that I’ll think of something. I’ll be able to finish a painting or that a painting will reveal itself to me. Or that I will be revealed to myself in the work. It’s important to go with that and not worry so much about the critics on my back, which can be a big problem. I think a lot of creative work in our culture right now is based on an extroverted premise rather than an introverted one.

works:  When you say extroverted premise you mean...?

SC:  Worrying about what other people think. One has to create a sovereignty in order to follow one’s own path. That leads to true diversity. We’re raised to conform, and to go against that is not easy. In listening to your own voice the results can be very subversive. And by "subversive" I don’t mean that art has to be didactic...or what I call "baseball-bat art," where it hits you "upside the head." It can be more subtle. It can get under the skin.

works:  Can you say more about that?

SC:  Right now we have a lot of art work being made that is meant to sensitize the viewer—the public—to political injustices and different things, but it’s taken on a kind of fascist edge. It demands that we believe in its ideology and its premise. And it’s non-elastic. It’s unforgiving and doesn’t allow for the viewer to question or to have a personal area of inquiry. It’s statement-oriented and fairly fixed. I think of it as cultural anthropology or cultural sociology—stuff that’s meant to teach and be didactic but I’m not sure it occupies the delicate place that art really resides in, which is a little more fragile, and a little less answered. Art doesn’t illustrate a premise or an ideology. It asks questions. It won’t give you any answers really. It’s more ambiguous.

works:  Yes. That reminds me of the use of shock. The idea that shock will help, "shock therapy," you know. I suppose that came into Western art... well, the Dadaists started in around 1917...

SC:  Even the impressionists did… Yeah, because it was breaking up all the forms with those little blobs of color... Seurat’s paintings were a big shock when they were first seen.

works:  It’s a convention now, and bigger and bigger shocks have to be administered. So what happens if the artist really wants to make an impact? I read recently somewhere... someone actually stated that "the real art form today is terrorism."

SC:  Yeah. I mean I don’t think that’s a real art form, but I think that’s one direction it’s going. And if people think that art is about shocking, then they have to go further...

works:  The question is, where does that lead?

SC:  Self-destruction. Or, it’ll lead to wars and then people will just watch it on TV. People are so used to mediated experiences, used to observing life on a video screen. There is just more and more distance from humanity. I don’t think that is what art is about. The value of art is to get closer to humanity. In our culture there’s repression, denial, and narcissism. People are unable to empathize.

works:  Unable to feel connections with others and maybe to themselves as well.

A Call to Be
oil/alkyd on canvas

SC: Right. They create a false self. It looks like they’re real, but they’re not. We have all these ways of being in the world, and it’s all about surface. A lot of it is TV-modeled, whether people recognize it or not. People care about how people look. There are artists having plastic surgery—men. It’s not just women. The youth culture and that model of perfection. If people don’t fit into the TV model, they feel horribly inadequate. Just look at the billboards. And it’s a fairly limited American view, but it’s spreading all over the world. All over the world, you see people wanting those things from our culture that are the least profound: "Big Macs" and blue jeans.

works:  This leads to areas which I think you explore in your own work, areas of self and experience that are not on the surface. For instance, just looking at that painting, I see the questions posed: "What is heard? What is seen?" Can you talk about that?

SC:  In my work I’m trying to find the unmediated self. I think there are aspects of self that are unchanged, that echo the past, the present, and the future. I’m interested in that part of reality, not the culturally created one, although that’s a layer.

works:  I’ve noticed a number of references to breathing in your paintings. The matter of breathing is something to be understood.

SC:  Yes. Yes. The matter of being alive is something to be investigated. I think we take it for granted too much. That we’re going to wake up in the morning and just go on, do our stuff, run around, go to our jobs, have careers, and all that. I’m not so sure we’re going to be able to breathe in and out with a lot of ease because our air is getting so polluted. I think we’ve forgotten how good food is for us. I don’t think it’s as good as it used to be. All the vegetables have been altered. The fruits and vegetables look the same to us. It looks like that’s air out there. It looks like the water hasn’t got anything in it because it’s not yellow or black. Things are crumbly, but they sort of look okay. If you go to Russia the pollution’s really obvious. In St. Petersburg you can’t drink the water. It’s got typhus in it, but it’s also a horrible yellow color and it smells. And so that’s why I put these words in, like "breathing." It’s partly because I’m concerned that we’re depleting our resources. But also what I was after was understanding something that we take for granted: being alive. I had to start from some point...I think we start at a point that we can edit and carve away at, and this concern with ecology and the air is what led me to this other place. It gets to be two-pronged, which is more interesting to me anyhow.

works:  I feel some of your paintings are almost like prayers.

SC:  Oh yes. Absolutely. They are. They are. I think of them that way. And the way that I came to that is probably just from the practice of painting. I could have done it through meditation, I suppose. Anything one does deeply—I think you get to that point. The practice of painting...I’m very involved in it, and so its natural outcome is this spiritual concern. If you consider it long enough and deeply enough a conversion experience will occur. On the other side of that conversion experience, or transformation, is this understanding of our fragility of being—that we’re just specks. And, really, we’re just witnesses. It’s our job to come to some understanding of that. I want the work to evidence that endeavor.

works:  Would you say more about "conversion experience."

SC:  Something converts. Some people use the word "alchemy" or "transformation." "Conversion" is a word I use. In the simplest way, using paint or using’s dirt, but it converts to something else. It’s converted into a life force of its own or a recognition, and when it’s really successful there’s a leap of faith that the maker and other people make when they view it—that the thing exists on its own. When it doesn’t work, we question that object’s existence. When it works, we believe it, but when it doesn’t work, we wonder why it doesn’t feel right. We wonder what’s missing. And the same is true of objects and paintings. But when it does work, we believe in its reality. The frescoes in Italy do that, and Rembrandt’s self-portraits. There’s a lot of work people keep going back to because it’s so believable.

works:  When it works, it touches something in us that recognizes it.

SC:  We recognize it. Absolutely. And I think that what we recognize is our true self.

works:  You’re talking about the object working in relation to the viewer, but then there’s also the relationship of you, the artist, actually before the work itself.

SC:  Yes. Well, I’m like a conduit. I’m the one who takes the dirt and tries to be present with it so that it converts into a painting, an artwork. The job of the artist is to be able to make a place for that to happen through their skills, or their vision, or their surrender to the activity and the material and the ideas. It’s a combination of all those things.

works:  So there’s both the artist as active agent but there’s also this process you refer to when you use the word "surrender."

SC:  Right, or "witness." It’s both. It’s two-headed. It’s a Siamese twin sort of thing. And they work together. Artists are—I think of us as radio receivers. Our job is to be available, to accept information and to make it visible. And it works best when the information that we accept is the information we recognize as a part of our deeper self. We’re all individuals, but we’re also kind of the same. And it’s personal, but it can’t just be that. It can’t just be what I had for breakfast or what color hair I have. I think it has to be so that someone else can say, "That’s mine." The viewer has to be able to claim ownership.

works:  I’ve found some of the phrases in your paintings, or titles, intriguing. "There are secrets in everyday breaths." That statement could be passed over as if it were understood. But I think there’s a lot to be uncovered in that statement.

SC:  I guess I can mean it in a couple of ways. One way would be the excitement of—just the mystery of life. The recognition that this is really an amazing organism that we inhabit. And the other could be that if we pay attention there is stuff about ourselves that can be revealed if we just slow down and become quiet. There may be discovery that is like a secret...and I guess I’m interested in uncovering some of those so that the person I am on the outside is the person I am at home. I don’t mean home literally. What I mean is that I don’t want to be presenting one self and hiding another self somewhere else. There are people you meet who you would never trust that the way they are in front of you is the way they are at home, and I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want to be that way in my spiritual life or my art life.

works:  Another phrase of yours I’ve made a note of is "Mysteries of lives lived in our bodies." That part, "lived in our bodies"—I find that very interesting.

SC:  We should be in our bodies. We should be present. That is what we inhabit. It’s our job to understand that, and to pay attention to it. And again, I think our culture encourages us to deny that. When people die, there’s no ritual about it. Often you don’t see the body. It’s just denied. The process of being in the body is denied. Hospitals do that. I think we have a series of memories or lives that inhabit our bodies. We may have been here before, or we may recognize energies that have been here before. There’s a past that we’re aware of that’s really in the present. And so that’s part of it. The other thing is that I really think we should be centered, and grounded...know when our feet are touching the ground. And know the weight of gravity. I’m very interested in understanding that, whatever that is.

works:  I have the sense that what you’re talking about has very little to do with all the jogging and aerobics and so on...about which someone might say, there’s a great interest in the body.

SC:  No. I’m interested in being in the body and accepting that. If someone wants to "sculpt" their body, that’s one thing. But I don’t think they should be sculpting it to get away from it. And I suspect that for too many people it’s an attempt to leave their bodies.

works:  All that "sculpting the body," and so on, I’d say it reflects the obsession with surfaces you mentioned earlier and not really an interest in the body itself, strangely enough. Certainly not being present in the body, as you say.

SC:  Right. Well, and this is speculation... I think we also live in a culture that is highly melodramatic—which is why terrorism is so fascinating—because, if it doesn’t hit someone "upside the head" they don’t think it’s real. They don’t think they’re feeling. So a lot of people’s concern with the body is on a "melodramatic" scale. It’s not the subtleties. For instance, just feeling the blood go through your body. You could do that sitting down.

works:  And when I think about it as you’re talking...what model do we have in our society that would lead us toward ourselves in the way you’re speaking about?
Each Week Americans spend 12 hours watching T.V. and 22 minutes on LOVE,

Twenty-Two Minutes
77" x 77"
oil/alkyd on linen

SC:  Well, the only models are spiritual paths. Meditation, or the activity of painting. I think somebody could just count. Actually Jonathan Borofsky is doing that. He’s counting to infinity. He’s got a stack of notebooks three-and-a-half feet high. All with just columns of numbers on it. I think anything that appears to be useless is probably very useful. And art is not considered useful. Only in the last 20 years has it been considered useful, and its use is as an investment.

works:  It seems to me that in the past there were traditions in which the artist was perhaps viewed as an integral part of society.

SC:  Yes. Because the things they made were used for rituals or used for devotion. They were inextricably woven into life’s fabric. Even until recently I think art had a spiritual component. I think there actually are a lot of artists for whom art still has that aspect. But the way it’s handled in the marketplace the work is treated as a commodity—something to be bought and sold. Art is not always considered a device to orient us toward being.

works:  Here’s another phrase that strikes me: "Nothing is real until you witness it."

SC:  Sometimes when I see things I’ve written I wonder, where did that come from?

works: What that reminds me of is that we receive all this processed information and it all comes from somewhere outside of ourselves. And is it ours?

SC:  Knowledge. Books. Yes, all of this stuff. Well, it is if we recognize it. But I think we have to pay attention to it. We have to pay attention. We can’t just accept it blindly. Oftentimes people believe anything they read. They think it’s true. It’s written down. I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe the Ten Commandments. It was written in stone. So, people will believe anything on a tablet. But I don’t believe it unless I recognize it. Unless it rings true.

works:  Yes, I’ve noticed this same automatic tendency to accept what I read. But sometimes, if I’m lucky, a little bell goes off, something says, "Wait a minute!"

SC:  Right. And that’s what we all have to do more. I mean, I have the same problem, but I get confronted by so much. Well right now, in the art world, and in universities, there is so much rewriting of history— people trying to rewrite it. I think there’s a lot of "baby" being thrown out with the bath water.

works:  I think it provides a service to your students.

SC:  Being skeptical?

works:  Yes. Advocating a little thinking, opening questions.

SC:  Well, I hope so. Because students will always believe what they read. I shouldn’t say always. But for the most part. Because there’s going to be someone in a position of power, a professor or instructor, telling them that this is the truth. And it may only be that person’s truth. It may not be appropriate for everyone in the room.

works:  You’ve written, "I’m an advocate of the un-watched life."

SC:  Oh, yes. "The unwatched life" is the one that isn’t false. To me, it’s the one that’s the same inside as outside.

works:  Perhaps there’s a tremendous amount of life that goes by unnoticed. And, if one were to take an interest in that unwatched life, who knows what one would find?

SC:  Right. But see, we’re so driven by "melodrama" and the obvious, that people pass that soul stuff up. I guess my work is concerned with that subtlety. I love this phrase of Duchamp’s "Artmaking is making the invisible, visible." I think that’s what I’m interested in.

works:  That reminds me. You were talking to the class from Mills College and made references to the use of light in your work, equating light to spirit—something along those lines

SC:  Light in a painting, for me, is not about reflected surfaces; it’s about an inner luminosity. I think sculpture can have it, too. It’s a recognition of a life force. In the Renaissance light was a stand-in for life, or spirituality, or the presence of a God...or a higher self, a soul. I’m interested in having that aspect of light in my paintings. I think we find solace in the recognition that there’s something we don’t really understand, that we don’t really know. But we do know. You can see, when you look into people’s eyes, there’s light in people’s eyes. That’s another place where that light resides. I guess I’m interested in getting light into the paintings because I think we need that. It’s about that leap again, that there is something else other than materiality. I’m not certain what it is between being and not being. It’s subtle. And it’s available to all of us. It’s a part of us. It’s about recognition.

works:  I think these things are not easy to articulate. Which leads me to this question: what is it that painting can do that words can’t?

SC:  Well, I think that the painting is a stand-in for the body. It becomes the host. That’s part of its conversion. It becomes a host for the spiritual. It’s a symbol for the life force, but I actually think it becomes that. That’s why some paintings have such longevity and people continue to make pilgrimages to see them. Good paintings enable us to believe in the palpability of its skin, of the existence of a body.

works:  The painting as "a stand-in for the body." I’ve never heard anyone put it that way before.

SC:  I think it is. Painting in particular. Well, because it’s not real. It’s an illusion. It’s a two-dimensional surface. You have to make a leap to believe in it. I think it’s more complicated than sculpture. Now sculptors will really disagree with me (laughs) but I do. Because it’s an illusion of reality. But then, when it’s really successful, it’s completely believable and completely real. It doesn’t displace your own physical space like a sculpture does.

works:  But I can say, "Well, it’s a real object. It has color..."

SC:  But color is light. It’s ephemeral, it’s cones and rods. It’s a perceived reality. What’s really great about painting—and this may be why I like it—is that there’s a collective acceptance of its reality. But the only time it really works is when it has a presence that continues on into the present, that’s always in the here and now. The Mona Lisa works because it’s present today. It’s believable today. Rembrandt’s paintings have that. They’re not stuck in the time when they were made.

works:  I also meant to ask you about color. It seems to me that you have a great sensitivity to color.

SC:  I think I do. I have a couple of gifts as a painter. One is color. And one is the ability, from time to time, to tap into an emotional resonance, into feelings that other people recognize. I think color is a repository of human feelings and emotions. There are ways to use it to give depth and luminosity and to enhance emotions. I think different colors do different things, and they don’t always do the same things. It depends on the context in which they’re used.
     For instance, I use black a lot. I think that it takes on—it’s about any form. It’s similar to water. Water takes on any shape: the shape of a cup or glass or pond. I don’t believe there’s negative space, for instance. Artists are trained to see positive and negative space. Well, why is that? I don’t think the air is negative space. Black and white are just different sides of the same rock. They’re twins. One is reflective and comes toward you, and one you go towards. It envelops you. I think of black as a really positive color. I think its luminosity is about a life force, and I actually think of white as funereal. That may have to do with the reports of all these people who when they have near-death experiences go to the light. I don’t know. But I also see white as a life color. As daylight. I see them as night and day, and so they both occupy this place of positiveness, because it’s a whole 24 hours. And other colors—I just use them...They have to feel right.

works:  You arrive at the colors you are satisfied with through attention to your feelings.

SC:  Yes. And I couldn’t really say how it is that I do that. The only excuse I have is that it’s a gift. I’m able to make color kind of breathe and seem like it’s alive.

works:  I certainly feel your colors are very strong. They touch me quite deeply.

SC:  That’s what other people say. And I’m willing to accept that...I know that’s a strength of mine. I just don’t know how I arrive at it. But it has to feel right. It has to reach the right weight. The right luminosity.

works:  You use words in your paintings and I’ve heard you relate this to time in speaking of your paintings.

SC:  Yes. It slows down... It forces the viewer to slow down and be in real time, whatever that is. That would be being in the present. That would be like breathing in, breathing out, blinking. It would be like being in the body. And so the use of words, or even just the means that someone can’t just scan the paint surface, slide across it like they were skating. They have to slow down. They have to pick up stones. It slows them down.

works:  I can look at your work and say that one of the things you’re doing is working, in a way, to balance the conditions surrounding us in which we lose our "ordinary lives."

SC:  Right. I guess I feel our life span is whatever we have, and so we’re supposed to pay attention to it as it goes on each day, step by step, not to try to get to the end before we’ve spent time in the middle.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine     


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