by John Kinsella
I have known Karl Wiebke since the mid 1980s, after he migrated to Australia in 1981. Karl was born in Germany, where he held his first exhibition of painting (at Die Malwand, Rotenburg) and studied fine art from 1972-76 at the Hochschule für bildende Kunst in Hamburg, with further exhibitions at Kabinett für aktuelle Kunst (1977/1980).
I first came across Karl in Fremantle where I frequently visited (and later lived for while) on bouts of protest and dissipation. As a poet who at that time was focussed on writing (or thinking) poems out of what I experienced in accordance with what I read, visualised and heard, I was excited to come across Karl’s work of commitment and daily application, something I was very much unable to sustain at the time.
But I was also interested in Karl’s open but very specific view of art in the world, and heard him jamming on a guitar with other artist-musician-practitioners (whom I knew in differing degrees) on various occasions (and am pretty sure I was at his last public gig with ‘Paint Kaput’ at the Cave Bar in Fremantle — one of my haunts of the time — in 1991, but I could be misremembering the occasion), and very early on spent some hours here and there zoned out on the studio floor where he made art and played with others, being politely coaxed out after I had crashed out. During that period, I lived for a couple of months in a shallow cave behind a screen of bushes facing Bather’s Beach under the Fremantle Roundhouse Gaol (with its horrendous history).
Karl was always kind and generous, willing to talk about art and tolerant of my misdemeanours of behaviour and creative distractibility. At times, I would come across him after he had returned from visits to India or elsewhere, and he would be particularly open and brimming with creativity — once he specifically invited me to see his work-in-progress (rather than my just turning up with someone else or somehow).
I came across Karl’s work before I met him —it was the 1983 exhibition at Praxis in Fremantle (an array of his painted sticks leaning against the wall: I was overwhelmed and thought of it as an installation poem). Yes, I certainly remember seeing his work first at Praxis (Fremantle, not the earlier Murray Street gallery in Perth). He seemed to be part of the new Perth-Fremantle modernism, but also outside it. Internal and external, and this really interested me.
I think I probably met Karl socially (at a friend’s house or at a glass-maker’s factory or at the Stoned Crow... I can’t recall) before meeting him in situ, painting. I later saw him at work at Bannister Street Studios, and also in the back garden of his home (if I recall correctly— I was there with another friend), and then more committedly at his studio in the old Fremantle Fire Station, where on a few occasions I saw different drip layers of his pedestal of paint as it was being built-up over the years (Monochrome painting 1984-1991), as well as his many-layered sculpted paintings/gougings, revealed the very essence of what it is to make a painting.
Karl’s painting is about practical work and also about the work of thinking. What is unseen in the painting, what is underneath, has visceral meaning to the ‘appearance’ of what is seeable. The long-term engagement (almost a painterly contract) to making an artwork, and being able to commit to such making for all the flux and changes of time — a duration that realigns the temporal — fascinated me. In the same way as the bands of paint on sticks struck me as being like narrow vertical poems of different length stanzas with different intensities, bringing to mind distended and extended colours as vowel sonneteering à la Rimbaud, I always left his studio with answers to formal problems in shaping, lineating and making poems.
I feel I write poems of the external world — the natural environment — with an internality, and I think Karl paints to make painting both internal and external as per his ‘following’ of Theo van Doesburg’s annihilation and renewal of art, and the notion that concrete art speaks to the individual (the old) and the universal (the new). One thing I feel is sometimes missed by critics when considering the universalism of Karl’s art is the intense localism that comes with where and how a piece of art is created over time. If the De Stijl manifesto speaks of sympathising ‘with all who work for the formation of an international unity in Life, Art, Culture, either intellectually or materially', then the practice Karl developed in Germany necessarily alters in experential dynamics when made in Fremantle, Perth, or Melbourne, because the conditions of making shift.
These shifts are noticeable in the way paint applies to a prepared (or not) surface, the rapidity with which it drips and dries, how it mixes or doesn’t mix (more ‘time’ of setting between layers means resistance... and I often think of electronic resistance colour codes and ‘ohm values’ as a kind of code for control of creativity... brown red orange yellow as markers of tolerance) in different atmospheric conditions (working close to the sea is different from working away from it). Also, the social-demographic conditions of materiality shift between localities, as well as across time, and, in doing so, change perception and process.
If in eschewing symbolism, the artist changes the terms of referentiality in a painting, they doesn’t necessarily change the way a viewer (or experiencer’s — touch, smell, even the sound of a painting being made) searches for symbolic meaning, even when they are directed not to by descriptions of intent (a critic’s imposition more than the artist’s). Karl is aware that his purpose is his purpose as artist, and that the viewer will make their own purpose. That is not a problem, and is in fact an energiser of a commitment to paint across a lifetime with a purpose to make and build on that making.
I admired (and admire) Karl for his work ethic, and I was also mindful of how such a personal commitment did not prevent him from communal and social generosity. Many people knew Karl ‘back in the day’, and his respect for many different kinds of making — making outside an aesthetic hierarchy, but with a commitment to work and building — seemed socially as well as materially just to me.
Again, we might think of Theo van Doesburg and his ‘The End of Art’ — ‘Aestheticism has infected and diseased us all. (Yes, us.)’. Modernity is always about negotiating internal spatiality with the pressures of external mass-producing, and the artisan aspect of Karl’s work-habits are, it seems to me, very much connected with meditative repetition that is a ritual to allow spiritual questioning — in other words, the work-ritual prevents internal existence falling into repetition and anodyne ritualistic responses which prevent contact with creativity. So work and repetition are not habit, but absolute necessity.
External process brings internal freedoms. And always that complexity of texture: smooth drips of paint that look/feel like rivers, bridges, valleys, hills, roads and even like the body... And the codings of colour that are concrete, plastic, and realisable in the world. None of this is ‘symbolic’ by design, and it is always new.
Over the years I have written many poems (and articles... and also an exhibition opening speech) out of experiencing and thinking about Karl’s work in terms of the making of poetry, including writing poems inside the catalogue reproductions of his painting hoops/rings/circles. There is an interesting ‘bio’ page on Karl at his regular gallery Liverpool Street Gallery extracted from an article by Margaret Moore (published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 46, October-December 2008), and recently I have written a series of poems on his 2020 exhibition, ‘Seven Paintings’ :
Graphology Ratio 39: On Karl Wiebke’s Seven Paintings 2020
G7 Orange, 2020
Across the decades of work, Karl,
apotheosis is in the wrist and eye, a pattern
of days and aqueous humour floaters
fielding vision to remake inversions,
a microscopy of lucid orange to trail
flagella on their paths across the slide
of purple-mauve pooled echoes.
G7 Grey, 2020
Immediacy is grey in the compressed
vessel where spectral suppresses
to highlight, burst into pre-cursive
search for vowels and immense
looping eruptives, qua rewriting
storage to allow more uptake, out-
flow, time to reconcile dusk as dawn.
G7 Muted White, 2020
House of cells is engram of mosaic
to address figure to figure in the colour
chart test to lift out numbers and letters,
to go against marbled waters
still on surface but a micron beneath
shifting curves to hexagonals — what
pushed into field of muting so vigorously?
Masks of paint-theatre fall-and-rise
and fall risen to make happy sad, sad happy;
in alert mode we sit on tipped seat-edges
waiting for upraising curtain point
of attack but peace reigns in draft
redraft final moment closing lines curtailing
perpetual wonder of endless drama.
G7 Blue, 2020
Resolved a long time ago now active
as irresolute so decided upon, so back
& forth to cover ground with swirl
and shimmy in sky-water interface
ingredients of equilateral and isoleles
letter-curves to lift blue shadows
to sink and float and sign-out vapour.
G7 Dark Blue
Bluefire jellyfish signatures epochs.
Stingers wave tentacles and are tentacles.
Folders merge chirography — systems
ail and effuse to rise an oxygen-surface dichotomy.
We swim lexically and are stung. We stroke. Submerge.
Following to surface is more than gill, more than gasp,
and not those bends in a doctrine of signatures.
G7 Pink, 2020
Touch washed blood picture report as bubbles
pop and flatten to trail back a scene of mixing
or even source of pigments; gentle surge regular-irregular
to answer exquisite critic’s conundrum of pulse,
that quixotic histology of pink promising to flush
buddings out; but intense to examine each variation,
each exception, those myriad conversations, our moods.
Also recently, a family member ‘unearthed’ the painting below made sometime during the early 90s, I think. Karl and I did two of these — Karl did the ‘base’, and I painted lines from my poems over the top. One I returned to Karl for him to add layers over, and one I kept and lost (now found!). I have no idea what became of the other one, but below is a photo of the one I held onto — the words are from my poem ‘Helen Frankenthaler’s Interior Landscape, 1964’ along with ‘stimuli’ additional words that were intended to open the interior of the painting and the text. I have also written many poems on Frankenthaler's work, and it seemed interesting to me at the time to create a conversation via physically applied text between the different spatialities of these painters. I think poetry can facilitate such conversations without imposing or co-opting. I have always been interested in the physical act of writing, which in some ways I equate to painting (in other ways, not), and to graphologically bring the two modes of making and cause-response together was quite exciting. I wish the project had gone further!
|Karl Wiebke and John Kinsella — 'No Graffito' Painting/Poem|