SQUEAK CARNWATH'S paintings are detailed and complicated. They are not the type of creations you slap on your wall because they match the drapes. Through pigment and canvas, they can cry out angry frustration. In her 1999 work "Promise," she scribbles vows to the viewer that she will "try" to be good.
And even in their somewhat nerve-racking complexity, Carnwath's work becomes rather lovely and meaningful, especially to those who attempt to decode what the 62-year-old Oakland artist is trying to say.
But don't ask Carnwath to interpret her paintings for you. She is intentionally vague about the stories behind her works. She wants her viewers to read and analyze her paintings themselves.
"You can't worry about what anybody thinks when you are making art," she says. "I just put it out there."
Judging from her long list of awards and accolades, many in the art world seem to think highly of Carnwath's creations.
"I think they are beautiful," says Oakland Museum of California senior curator Karen Tsujimoto, organizer of "Squeak Carnwath: Painting is No Ordinary Object." "She's masterful with paint, but her work is a combination of thinking and looking and feeling."
The Carnwath show, which opens Saturday and continues through Aug. 29, presents the artist's work since her last major exhibition, a show that traveled the country in 1994.
Tsujimoto has had a professional relationship with Carnwath for 20 years and says that a high-profile museum exhibition that focuses solely on the artist is long overdue.
"My MO is really doing projects that honor and respect people who have been in the field for a long time and should be recognized," Tsujimoto says. "I believe she's an important painter whose work should be shared."
Carnwath's paintings are in the permanent collections of many major museums across the country, including the Oakland Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art, SFMOMA and the Berkeley Art Museum. Their style is unmistakable; if you've seen a Carnwath, you'll recognize another.
Carnwath, whose birth name is Shirley, was given the name Squeak by her family because she was born prematurely and was a "tiny pipsqueak," according to the exhibition catalog written by Tsujimoto and John Yau. She has been living in the Bay Area for 30 years, currently in Oakland's Jack London Square warehouse district. She is also a tenured art professor at UC Berkeley.
Carnwath settled here in part because her husband was from the Bay Area, but she also because wanted to "get as far away from my family as possible," she says bluntly.
Carnwath's childhood was, in short, difficult and dysfunctional. The oldest of six children, she says the boys were always favored over the girls. Her father was an alcoholic and the family moved frequently for her father's work, leaving her relatively rootless. Her mother was driven by fear and played a victim, Carnwath says. Family battles with mental illness are woven casually through the stories of her life, in conversation with the artist and through the show catalog.
It's important to know that she had such a difficult childhood because she thinks about and reflects upon themes in her childhood frequently in her work. She's not brooding; rather, she's studying herself as a subject.
"I am fascinated by psychology, and I am fascinated by family dynamics," she says. While many of her paintings refer to family and psychology, she is not a one-theme artist. She also explores femininity and feminism, war, health, current events, colors and numbers. She loads her images with layers of paint and many symbols — so many that it's handy to read about Carnwath in the catalog before trying to decipher her "dumb bunny" humanoids or the "Lost Bird" theme she repeats in some of her pieces.
A lifetime artist whose father gave her art supplies, Carnwath has been active in the Bay Area art scene since the 1970s, participating in the Richmond Art Center's annual "Designer/Craftsmen" show and showing work in the Oakland Museum's "California Ceramics & Glass" show. In fact, Carnwath was talented in ceramics, studying under Viola Frey, but gave it up for painting.
After three semesters of study, Carnwath dropped out of the undergraduate program at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) but later returned for a master's degree in fine arts so she could teach.
She spends about 40 hours per week painting in her studio, a space she rarely shares with strangers. The act of painting is meditative and therapeutic, she says.
She points to a painting in her office that has a log with many lines on it painted near the middle of the work. When she paints those lines, she says, she's not just focused on the black paint against the blue canvas.
"You have stories and memories," she says. "Those thoughts and those insights, when they are accessed through making art then they should be part of the work somehow."
Although Carnwath loves to travel and visit museums — she spent several days in Paris just to visit the Louvre over and over again — her role as an artist defines her.
"I feel this is what I do, it's my purpose," she says.
Along with working alone, Carnwath has been a teacher at several schools and has earned tenure at both UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
At UC Berkeley, where she's been for eight years, Carnwath encourages her students to examine their own personal histories and backgrounds to find their voices and styles, as she did. She says that artists have to reveal something of themselves for their work to be meaningful.
"They have to be naked," she says. "Take risks, be afraid, see where that takes you. The key to happiness is doing what you want."
Reach Laura Casey at 925-952-2697 or email@example.com