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Carnwath, Liu & Sherwood @ b. sakata garo

Katherine Sherwood, "Venus, 2013, mixed media and collage, 65 x 82"


Inside this elegantly refurbished 19th century firehouse-cum-art gallery, three of the Bay Area's most celebrated artists unite in what is arguably one the strongest painting shows to the the Capital City in recent memory.  Their dissimilar, intensely personal and sometimes eccentric works demonstrate a range of approaches, each corresponding to different experiences, concerns and worldviews.

Katherine Sherwood’s paintings are about corporeality. They frequently include photolithographic transfers of brain scans (her own) and illustrations from medical texts mixed with ancient symbols.  Here, the symbols are gone, as are the cracked paint pours that were once her trademark.  They’re replaced by thin washes, quiet colors, repeated patterns and contour drawing, which she uses to delineate figures (also her own).  The results are three outsized odalisques in which brain scans stand in for faces and illustrations of brain matter — painted and collaged — adorn the heads, Medusa-like.  From an artist whose medical history informs her every move, this coupling of scientific fact and sexual posturing makes for delicious black humor: the artist staring down death as a nude with disabilities: a leg brace in one painting, a crutch in another.  

Sherwood employs unique surfaces to convey this information.  Each painting is executed on the versos of six discarded Old Master reproductions that have been affixed to large pieces of linen and correspondingly identified: “Holbein”, “Canaletto”, “Brueghel”,  “Titian” “Durer” and so forth.  Under their weight, the paintings billow out from the wall.  Sherwood may conceal their identity, but she takes literally the idea of the artist building on the works past masters — Titian's Venus of Urbino and Manet's Olympia, being two obvious precedents for the works on view. 
Hung Liu, "Important, the Soldier's Task, 2013, mixed media

Hung Liu — fresh off a 40-year retrospective at the Oakland Museum – debuts a series of small-scale portraits and still lifes based on some of the same historic photos that have served as source material for earlier paintings.  Here, they’re reworked with a process called Za Zhong, which means hybrid. It involves coating a digital print with alternating layers of pigment and resin to produce effects akin to a stereoscopic photograph or a relief sculpture viewed through glass. Earlier large-scale works made this way were most notable for their glistening sheen; these, on account of their scale and placement in a narrow corridor, feel intimate.  For Liu, a history painter who grapples with memory, this approach feels like the perfect counterbalance to her better-known drip paintings, which obscure almost as much of her subjects as they reveal.  These, in contrast, have an almost pristine clarity.  They center on classical and modern Chinese themes.   

Loquats – Gold, one of several gem-like still lifes, feels like a diorama arranged by Audubon.  It shows fruit, foliage and a bird sitting at varying depths in the picture plane. Two resin-encased photos of the artist’s grandmother do the reverse by distancing us from the subject.  They hint at the anamorphic possibilities of a daguerreotype without delivering them; and so, by frustrating our instinct to focus what is before our eyes, we experience the same challenge as Liu does when she paints from photos:of vivifying the past.   Important, the Soldier’s Task, the largest and most powerful picture in this series, stands apart.  This large-scale work shows a parade of pirouetting female soldiers, derived from a photo I presume was taken during the Cultural Revolution, which Liu witnessed as a young adult in China.  At a distance it’s all pomp and pageantry; up close, smears of red pigment situated at various depths read as blood. They turn an ode to patriotic glory into an indictment.
Squeak Carnwath, "Alive", oil and alkyd on canvas over panel

Squeak Carnwath’s paintings map her own consciousness.  Each is a foray into the ineffable populated by patterns, words, geometric shapes, letters, household objects, numbers, taxonomic grids and text — all of which she renders in a faux-naif mode.  The essential revelation Carnwath brings to painting is this: Beneath the armor of adulthood, everyone is a child, and she uses that conviction to display her innermost thoughts, sifting life’s mysteries by placing into her paintings things designed to trigger emotions of every sort.  Her works are both vernacular and esoteric. 

For me, the text portions of her work have always been the entry points.  They provoke an internal dialog that sets off a search for supporting visual clues that, in most cases, leads everywhere and nowhere.  Propelling the journey is the artist’s paint handling – most notably the confectionary surface textures that appear messy and crude, but are, in fact, precisely modulated to appease retinal and quite possibly gustatory desires.
Alive and All Here, the two major works on view, are both exceptional. I won’t attempt to interpret them.  Critics routinely try and expend gallons of ink suggesting the multivalent possibilities; whereas with, say, William T. Wiley, an artist who also juggles cryptic signs, symbols and text, teasing out meaning is substantially easier.
“Painting,” Carnwath once wrote, “reminds us of what we don’t know but what we recognize as familiar.”  That liminal zone – between the strange and the familiar – is the territory in which these three iconic artists operate.  Their appearance in the same room qualifies as an event.
Squeak Carnwath, Hung Liu and Katherine Sherwood @ b. sakata garo through June 1, 2013.

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