A Painter Uses the Evocative Power of Music to Express Nostalgia for the Past

What do a funerary urn and a sinking ship have in common with a Rubik’s cube and an old LP record? They’re all symbols of loss—whether dramatic reminders of human mortality or relics of a not-so-distant past—and they’re all juxtaposed together in the works of painter-sculptor .
The passage of time is one of the artist’s favorite themes to explore. So it’s fitting that her latest exhibition, “What Before Comes After” at Jane Lombard Gallery, represents 25 years of work, and her first solo exhibition in New York in more than a decade. The show is an interesting glimpse into her creative trajectory and her continued fascination with a singular topic.
Some works, like Two of Everything and The Sea is in Between (both 2014), look more like collages than paintings, mixing Carnwath’s visual motifs—the sinking ship, the LP—with diagram-like sketches and snippets of text, some of the words and phrases intelligible, others abstract. In each individual piece, there’s a lot to look at, and several elements that feel mysterious. And yet the sensation of nostalgia is almost palpable. The same is true of a piece like Toile Ships (2014). Though the concept here is simpler—the ship motif is repeated at regular intervals, pattern-like—there’s an enigmatic feel to the painting. And thanks, in part, to another pattern overlaying the ships, this one vertical, evoking pelting rain or teardrops, there’s an unmistakably melancholy quality to the work.
Within the context of Carnwath’s career, these collage-like works represent the better part of the last decade. They might be seen as variations on earlier pieces that are also featured in the show, like Hours (1990), a vaguely foreboding mixed-media work made with charcoal, graphite, acrylic, and “dog tracks” on paper. With its scattered text and dark visual symbols—a black bird, an empty bed, sand passing through an hourglass—it can be read as the basis for Carnwath’s later works.
“What Before Comes After” also features a series of pieces that the artist created just this year. Like her collage-like paintings, the “song” series incorporates hand-drawn text and engages with the theme of music and records of the past: works like A Little Sad and Nearly Perfect feature the titles of popular love songs, crowded onto the canvas and accompanied by an iPod shuffle with a curated playlist. The effect is poignant and deeply personal, prompting, for many viewers, a deep dive into one’s particular history, romantic or otherwise. Much like scent, after all, music has the power to conjure up long-forgotten details from days gone by. In her latest works, Carnwath translates that nostalgia onto the canvas, marking a powerful development in her career as an artist.

Bridget Gleeson

What Before Comes After” is on view at Jane Lombard Gallery, New York, Oct. 22–Dec. 19, 2015.