The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto characterized art made after Warhol's subversive Brillo Boxes as a kind of applied philosophy or epistemology (investigation of knowledge or perception), but embodied in physical objects rather than verbal architecture. Contemporary art's welter of signs and symbols generally confirms this insight; so perplexing is the onslaught at times that we are reminded of the lovingly mocking inventory of dramatic styles in Hamlet — "pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral," etc., but life, admittedly, is no less hybrid and contradictory than art. The 81 paintings in Squeak Carnwath's retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California, Painting Is No Ordinary Object, explore consciousness, à la Danto, but they're also traditional handmade artifacts that capture the mysterious world of objects and words, sights and sounds, in oil paint. So committed is Carnwath to her medium that she replicates wallpaper/textile patterns and jotted notes on torn scraps of paper, elements eminently collage-ready, in Philip Guston's "colored mud."
Paradoxically, the obvious beauty of these richly colored, heavily worked paintings leads some to underestimate them as mere eye candy, and to misconstrue Carnwath's declarations of aesthetic independence. Fortunately, senior curator Karen Tsujimoto and art critic John Yau have written illuminating essays for the show's catalog that consider this highly eclectic work from the contradictory viewpoints of its various sources: painting tradition (Rembrandt, Turner, Pollock, Rothko, New Image, graffiti, folk art); post-painterly avant-gardism (conceptualist lists and numbers, minimalist grids, performance art ritual); and Carnwath herself: the child who made laboriously antiqued treasure maps and hid them for strangers to find; the young feminist making installation art about Virginia Woolf and the risks and rewards of creative life; the mature painter preserving in her painted time capsules both borrowed motifs like religious symbols and interesting quotations and "the really boring things, the things that people ignore," both ordinary objects and the mental chatter of all higher primate brains; and the veteran teacher commemorating vanished friends and colleagues — applied philosophy. Carnwath incorporates a wealth of styles and motifs in her work beneath a unifying aesthetic: "Painting is a philosophical enterprise, a kind of alchemy [in which] inert material becomes something else a document of being a repository of the human spirit." Her paintings, stream-of-consciousness thought-plasmas that are both ethereally optical and physically tangible, celebrate the floating world of phenomena and its no-less-transitory percipients, and affirm the joys and consolations of that alternative spiritual practice, the garage philosophy of art. Through August 23 at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland). MuseumCa.org or 510-238-2200
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