Karl Wiebke - Artist Page


Karl Wiebke

"Collector's Dossier: Karl Wiebke"

In a search for remoteness and for somewhere to further his artistic career, Karl Wiebke immigrated to Australia from Germany in 1981 at the age of 37. His earliest exhibition pedigree, with exhibitions in 1977 and 1980 at the influential space Kabinett für aktuelle Kunst, showed precocious promise for establishing an international career. (Without a commercial imperative, for over 40 years the Kabinett has paraded a catalogue of major artists – including Gerhard Richter, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Wolfgang Laib, Lawrence Weiner, Thomas Schütte and Luc Tuymans to name just some – often at early stages in their careers.) 

Wiebke elected to arrive in Perth, in favour of the more populated Eastern seaboard cities of Australia, with a desire for a refreshed beginning distanced from the political climate in Germany and from friends and family. Twice before he had attempted to leave to live in India but his ultimate and successful attempt for Australia was a personal decision, knowing it would be more conducive to being a satisfied individual and a successful artist, which for Wiebke are one and the same. 

He gravitated to the artistic hub of Fremantle finding kindred spirits first in the Bannister Street Workshops and later with Paint Kaput, conducting long jamming sessions and occasional public performances with fellow artists Alex Spremberg and Trevor Richards in a Pakenham Street studio that was fitted out as much for playing music as for painting. He and Spremberg had previously lived in city communes in Germany that had also attracted Martin Kippenberger, although Wiebke’s predilection for minimal and process art meant they were not especially aligned. 

Wiebke’s artistic vigour and personal magnetism remains infectious and from the outset in Australia he attracted the interest of fellow artists, curators, gallerists and collectors alike. Describing Wiebke as a “voIuntary recluse”, Marco Marcon observed in 1992 that he was ”an artist who has been increasingly regarded as one of the most rigorous and authoritative artistic personalities working in Western Australia.” In a review of 1994, David Bromfield opened with the observation that Wiebke’s work had “built him a big following of collectors and admirers who have enjoyed participating in often fiery debates about pictorial theory in Fremantle cafes”. 

It is the significance of Wiebke’s work itself though that sustains reputation, audience and ultimately market appreciation, through its conceptual certainty and material aesthetic. His first exhibition in Australia in 1983 at Praxis, Fremantle is still regarded with reverence by those who saw it and when curator John Stringer and I, then both working at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, met him and reviewed several exhibitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s his artistic integrity was easily championed culminating in several acquisitions and the major survey exhibition Karl Wiebke: Painting 1971-93 in 1994. 

There was and there remains a fundamental lack of artifice in Wiebke himself and in his work and he possesses an abiding concern for eliminating impediments and stresses to the living of life and the production of work. His relocation in 1981, and again 20 years later when he moved to Melbourne from Perth, is a part of an enduring approach to determining the conditions in which he progresses. Lack of artifice is not matched by lack of purpose or content. Viewers and writers are frequently confounded by the sheer beauty and awe they experience when confronted with much of his work, grappling to measure the artist’s austere intent with the sense of fulfilment, possibility and abundance in the work. 

Karl Wiebke’s practice has prevailed largely through the setting or accepting of creative determinants. Earliest works declare this commitment to process, and prescriptions for particular actions, time and labour. Several versions of Untitled Flag Series of 1974 are the result of strips of paper being hand dipped into pigment. The dipping action is rhythmic, imprecise and when the “flags” are displayed pinned along the wall, they evidence the hand-making with the subtlest variation of line where the paint meets paper, but at the same time they command space in their expanded form and colour. Although Wiebke’s painting has since developed to become far more complex, layered and sometimes monumental it is largely underpinned by the motivations and impulses established in such works as the flags of the 1970s. There is always an inspired yielding between the intimate and the expansive in Wiebke’s work. To handle the flags compressed between card, delicate and velvety, and then to see them articulate walls and volume is a typically transformative experience. The series of painted rods Untitled Germany (1979-80) and Untitled Australia (1983) piled like pickup sticks offer a similar revelation when raised and lined along the wall like sentinels. 

Later paintings built from accretions of enamel dripped or applied, sometimes for a period of several years, continue to produce substance and evocations that seem to completely transcend or defy their origins. Paintings such as Untitled 1-97(1993-7) exhibited in the David Pestorius-led project and publication of the same name, Monochromes 2000 at the University Art Museum in Brisbane, endlessly intrigue with a facture like a bed of lichen. The ambiguous colouration catching light and defining dimension in ways that seem more organic than synthetic. Inspection reveals the overwhelming application of layers entombing time and endeavour while at the same time conveying a level of inherent control to form art out of matter. 

Along with the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Holmes à Court Collection were early purchasers and soon a range of private collectors and public institutions followed. Inclusion in the 1990 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, curated by Mary Eagle, and the subsequent survey at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1994 increased awareness of his work. Visitors to Perth often resulted in invitations to exhibit such as from Frank Watters, Charles Nodrum and Chris Deutscher. However, it was the introduction to collector and impresario James Erskine where Wiebke found a measure of patronage and regular exhibitions with the Liverpool Street Gallery that seems to have enabled him to forge some of his most astoundingly sophisticated and mesmerising canvases, such as those exhibited under the title being human – painting in 2005. Writers for The Art Life blog relayed their marvel at the discovery of the meticulous rendering to create these webbed veils of paint: “Looking at the reproduction of his work on the gallery invitation…you’d be forgiven for thinking, as we did, that his paintings were swatches of fabric mounted on a stretcher. Back in the late 80s when Wiebke exhibited at EMR, he was doing small-scale abstracts using collage and paint – so it wasn’t out of the question that the artist had done a similar thing now. But just take a look at the work below – this is a canvas 212cm by 178cm where each line has been applied with a No.1 brush, following the grain of the canvas, each valley and rise in the fabric guiding a series of lines. It is mind blowing and we fear for the artist’s eye sight.” 

Along with commercial showings Wiebke has been included regularly in curatorial projects such as Monochromes and most recently in Cross Currents at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2007. His various dealer relationships in prior years mean that secondary market stock is occasionally available through Goddard + de Fiddes in Perth or Charles Nodrum in Melbourne although his work has as yet rarely surfaced at auction. Public access to his work is widely available with works distributed between most of the State Collections, the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Artbank, and Wesfarmers are also holders of work. 

In a career now spanning 40 years, it is apparent that Wiebke’s practice is not one of wild deviations. Such is the enduring strength of his premise for making work; an unrelenting quest for what constitutes painting. It is a premise that propels purpose and stems from optimism. It is conceivable that Wiebke’s decision to move to Australia delayed the rate or breadth of his artistic recognition but the artist himself would be the first to state that art and life are holistically linked in an ongoing conversation. For the time being he speaks of a shared ethos with friend John Nixon, with whom he made a pilgrimage to Marfa, Texas, and New York in 2006 to see exponents of concrete art and minimalism to which he remains most artistically predisposed. In all the time I have known Wiebke, artist Brice Marden has also figured as a focus of respect. Revealingly he now speaks of the inherent contradictions of the writing around art coming from a perspective and language of history when the reality of making art is beyond this language in the present. Rather than being too anchored or defined by modernist principle his immediate resolve is to continue to produce work in an anxiety-free environment with the underlying aim for positivity. This is as rarefied as it is simple and an increasingly valid summation of the work of Karl Wiebke. 

Margaret Moore
First published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 46, October-December 2008