Some truisms (in descending order of certainty): All women aren't artists. All women aren't feminists. Some, however, are both, and we call these women "feminist artists." I have no idea what it means to be a "feminist artist" or to make "feminist art," although I am open to the possibility the identity and the genre exist.
A simple question led to all this ruminating. A friend asked: "Is the Squeak Carnwath exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California 'feminist art'?" I just stood there. I couldn't answer. That was two weeks ago. I've thought a lot about the question since then and I still can't answer it. I just have this parade of thoughts marching in a circle through my head: Feminism, artists, feminist artist, feminist art (repeat). Lacking definitive answers, I guess I'll give it the ol' "Intro. to Women's Studies" try.
Carnwath is a woman and an artist and has been described as a feminist, partially for her decision to abandon ceramics in the late 1970s because she found the medium (at the time, in the Bay Area) too chauvinistic. She still lives in the Bay Area, and received her MFA from California College of Arts and Crafts, and has taught at UC Berkeley for the past ten years. The exhibit at the Oakland Museum, which includes work from the early 1990s to the present, is titled Painting is No Ordinary Object. It is the first large, solo museum show of her work.
Feminism-meter: Abandoning ceramics because of men, 1 point; large museum show dedicated to a living woman artist's work, 3 points.
I didn't see any overtly feminist themes in Carnwath's work. Instead, I saw a deeply personal visual language, a system of mark-making and time recording that was cryptic but still intelligible. The artist uses recognizable symbols (words, numbers, dates, objects) in subjective ways, juxtaposing the order of language and geometry with less tangible entities like loss, time, and guilt. Her textured paintings appear as both public displays and private entries, the layered images resembling walls of graffiti and journal pages.
In "All That I Know," from 1995, the squares of a grid house letters, dabs of paint, question marks, and everyday objects like a rotary telephone, a birthday cake, and an apple. Mimicking the form of the periodic table, the artist draws attention to all the things that defy quantification. Around 2002, Carnwath began incorporating a "guilt-free zone" into her paintings. The zone, roughly the size of two footprints side by side, is delineated by a dotted line. Inside, in the artist's distinct handwriting, are the words "Guilt-Free Zone." The artist makes it seem as though alleviating guilt could be so simple, and as our eyes rest on the simple circle, it seems like it might be.
Feminism-meter: Bringing the personal into the public realm, 1 point; subverting patriarchal language systems, 2 points; privileging non-linear systems of knowledge, 1 point.
My favorite group of paintings in the show are the ones Carnwath made during the '90s and early 2000s. Paintings like "But For Monkeys" (2003) and "Right Now" (2003) are like soothing blankets covering the walls. Linked bars of color create a multi-hued wall of bricks. These canvases appear more unified than some of the other works. In their size, color, and patchwork styles, they reminded me of quilts. The same is true of the text-based painting "Please" (2000), in which Carnwath writes "I'm sorry," over and over, black letters overlapping and cascading down the canvas. Her tiny repetitive script mimics the small stitches used to sew the top layer of a quilt to the bottom. There is something obsessive and devotional to both forms of handwork. Not all of Carnwath's paintings resemble quilts, although they all reflect the logic of quilt-making. Like discrete quilt squares made separately and then pieced together, Carnwath joins together disparate images and ideas, reconciling opposites, incorporating scraps of her experience into a cohesive whole.
Feminism-meter: being a woman and making big paintings, 1 point; paying homage to traditionally feminine forms of handwork, 3 points. Total score: 12 points.
Unfortunately, a scoring rubric for the feminism-meter does not exist, as the system of measurement is relatively new. And while I still don't feel qualified to say if Carnwath's work is "feminist art" (I only took one Women's Studies class, after all, I didn't major in it), I do feel qualified to say that the show is worth seeing. Carnwath's commitment to creating and discovering her own visual language is inspirational, whether you're a feminist or not.
Painting is No Ordinary Object is on display at the Oakland Museum of California through August 23, 2009. The museum is located at 1000 Oak St., Oakland.