Artist and UC Berkeley professor Squeak Carnwath’s brain is on display at Cuesta College. Well, not exactly, but as much as she could fit on nine huge canvases is.

The exhibit showcases newer paintings and prints from the highly awarded Oakland-based painter whose career began in 1971.

The collection is brimming with complexity. It’s hard to stand back and view the paintings from a distance. After taking in the image as a whole, it’s necessary to step closer and examine the finite details, some of which look accidental. It’s also hard not to focus on the paintings’ similarities as much as their differences.

Each piece, with the exception of one, appears earthy and stained from Carnwath’s application of hundreds of layers of paint and alkyd, a substance that assists in the building-up of glazes. On top of this, and in almost every piece, she paints symbols such as a black vase or urn, the bust of a sad man with shaggy hair and a stubble-beard, tree trunks, vinyl records and dashed lines that cordon off “Guilt Free Zones.” In an interview posted on UC Berkeley’s Web site, Carnwath said the guilt-free zones serve as a place to give herself a break from the emotions presented by the rest of the pieces.

The pieces don’t really demand an emotional response; it’s subtler than that. Well, mostly.

Each painting challenges viewers to think, yet each makes statements in a plain, clear manner, often through the childish handwriting on binder paper that adorns some of Carnwath’s works. Some of these messages are humorous; others invoke an “oooh” or “hmmm.”

On “The Whole Truth,” a piece of binder paper reads, “Inside is outside. Is the handed-down world the world of the true? The whole truth?” On a piece called “Perfect” amongst paint drips and on the blotchy-beige background, Carnwath wrote a paragraph about a Russian schoolteacher who predicted in the eighteenth century that animals would be the first “space travel pioneers.” In the guilt-free zone of this piece are two vinyl records and a map of sorts.

The most intriguing statement of the exhibit is made by one of the simpler pieces in the collection (one of three selling for $55,000). The upper third of the painting is a dirty blue, mixed with grays and browns and greens, and the lower two-thirds are the usual hundreds of layers and paint drips. Where the blue meets the beige, Carnwath questions the validity of painting as a language. Her erratic words read, “If painting is a language, is this thinking or observation?” She then asks if above the words is a picture of the sky or a bluish patch of paint.

In a way, this is the notion challenged by all of the paintings. You can look at them and say, “This is a piece of paper. A vinyl record. An urn. A dude. And is that a dog?” You can also simply take it in as the portrayal of complex human emotions through symbolism, humor, color and depth. Or you can just stare at the guilt-free zones.

Carnwath’s exhibit is showing in the Cuesta College Art Gallery (room 7170) through Wednesday, March 5.

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