Karl Wiebke, Writerly Painter Working Against Style: A Poet’s Reading

Behind me is a major work entitled “Feet”. It is listed as piece number 10, but for me serves as an entry point into this stunning exhibition. I’ll say more about the order in which we view and read things later. In the meantime, let’s step into its yellows and greens, into its undefinable space, its stretching field of vision. The flat surface deceives us. Suddenly there is increasing depth. We might maintain a quiet confidence as we depart on our journey. As if playing with and against a literary trope, it might be a picaresque. But one more like Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre” on which all senses are deranged. The air is intoxicating, the greens potentially poisonous. We are going to have to fight a possible darkness. Because beauty only exists in a context, it has its foils. But everything is possible – this is a space richly coded. Each entry will bring a new translation, a new way of seeing. I’ve heard this work described as a “riot in Paradise” and being “like the paddocks in spring around York”. A conceptual vision and a material one. The two merge and reinvent themselves. It is this desired instability of vision that Wiebke courts. The paint itself wins out.

Wiebke is inspired by the wonder of discovery, exploring the human’s relationship to the world. It is his pleasure of text. It becomes a quest for beauty. This process is not about “cultural discourse”, not about the culture industry, but about being human, about beauty, about the painting itself.

In investigating the conditions of painting he is discovering the conditions of work generally. Painting is political, like poetry – and can become the art of blindfolding as much as seeing. They are meta-textual pieces. They are conscious of process but not intrusively so. He is directly in contact with his material. It is a tactile relationship. Paint is a living thing for Karl – it travels outside of frames, it works like palimpsest. We see layer on layer of surfaces moving in, through, and against each other. His work is never static and yet conveys a profound understanding of shape and volume. One falls into his surfaces, into their lateral perspective.

Beyond our viewing, down by the door, is the piece marked as number one. It is entitled “Women, Reading”.  The suggestion of lines of connection, even participation, between the “readers” are clear, if haphazard. But such is the reading process. Beginning a text we expect to move from left to right across the page, and machine-like return the carriage of our eyes to the next point of departure a line below and so on. The Wiebke painting questions the expected, the linear notion of reading. There is something of the “found” in this. And so too with painting – the painter works against the expected by not being certain himself of an outcome. The growth of the painting is organic.

As a writer, I too work against the expected. A single paragraph becomes a novel, prose becomes poetry, different narrative threads merge and break and become new narratives. Time is displaced. But there is always an awareness of the environment in which the text was created – there’s a political context. And so too with the painting of Karl Wiebke. The work takes place in a particular political environment, to emerge as an artwork that may or may not be viewed in this context. The work generates its own meaning. Much experimental linguistic poetry of the late twentieth century in English, French, and German (specifically) is concerned with questions of referentiality. Does a work have meaning because it makes reference to the specific events and things “seen” in “real life” or does it maintain meaning, and indeed its politics, if it refers to itself, creates series of references within the spaces it itself creates?

I’d like to take us into the light. Everything is in our range of viewing now. We can locate ourselves and establish coordinates. Some of you might be drawn to the nodes and interstices of the Wiebke “Drawings” on my left. You might become wrapped in their webs of tension and relaxation, points where the enamels and acrylics refuse each other, become frustrated.  You might find yourself drawn to the pathology of  the companion pieces “A Few Drew, A Lot Not 1” and  “A Few Drew, A Lot Not 11” – confrontations with the recurrence of archetypes out of the nothingness of the line. The absence of content that is signifier for investment – the viewers desire to fill the emptiness, to define the space and thus their own presence. These unstable Rorschach tests that challenge us to consider the uncertainty of self, of the power and relevance of archetypes. Collective memory and the reliability of history are questioned here. We might then swing our eyes across the gallery to number 15 – “Detail 1” – a piece that has literally been cut out of a larger work. Where does the painting begin and end? What is the authentic “text” or image”? Does it lose meaning or is meaning added in its extraction? Is the extraction irrelevant? The naming of the work is all important. Language invests meaning, or potential meaning. But everyone’s way of decoding language is different. Within the frame of the poem metaphors draw together the disparate and create images out of the unlikely.

Some years ago I published the poem “Frame(d)” for Karl Wiebke. I’d like to read it as the processes taking place within the poem are similar, I believe, to those that go on inside a Wiebke painting, or indeed “Drawing”. That it refers to specific paintings is neither here nor there, and of course many in the world of experimental poetry would not have had the opportunity of viewing Wiebke’s work so it becomes more and more about process than external reference. In the same way, the viewer should not be mystified by external references, historical or visual, cultural or social, but let the unconscious and visual codes of the paintings work on them. The viewer becomes the painter. Creates his or her own work of art. Maybe over and over again.


for Karl Wiebke

erosion mimics a frame
like the severed limb retained:
raison d’être a vacant twitch
of the lip, placed in such
& such a non-littoral, but
inner like litotes cut out
of bridgehead & speech & speculative
shoulds that lie beneath

water: praising all THAT
fraught like ambiguity,
yeh, just a series of cross-
hatching, tide & tesserae
gauges of temperature: flow-
set in solid shadows or float-
ed against the picaresque
as distance

otiose, no neat slabs
defining banks of algae
red as graffiti, the
ordinance of iron & water &
yes, over, over the bridge

interplay: they careen hulls
rotten of colour &
greedy for detail: light-
ships & deadbanked &
dead-eyed as they scrape non-
itative modes of seeing, or shrouds
of dead eyes in the topsailed
balusters, we lean against the rail

where is it we see
this vast field of outers

ravishing inners, smoothly
ravishing inners, smoothly
prized apart as text-UR


enjambment over & under
& only in disbelief
does the hardened bream
fisher accept his hollows
came with bridge & dredge
& steep vertical in-deep
but needing obviously to outdrift the damage
in defining or redefining or holding to task
the engineer did not think to glance beneath
the gloss

we see from betwixt & hear AND, a visual mix like planes
as aerodones, refuse & list in curves the waves’ trans-
lations as taken meanings, & we must taste the acrid frame, but re-
fuse to be drawn entirely

THE as seals are scuppered, so so small
the tiny coda that eats the larger rotting fish:
as embroidery to cerulean depth
& tableaux of scrutiny

Now the poem has done its work I’ll say that paintings 5 to 9 in addition to the very brilliant “Lakes and Bridges” series come to my mind now, if not then (this poem was written in 1992). It is also interesting to read the lines “defining banks of algae/red as graffiti” as the other day I heard two people describe these works on my left as banks of coral and wads of algae. They had become something quite material. These viewers could physically sense their movement through aquatic spaces. Earlier today I came in and investigated the development of spores and bacteria in the petri dishes of their construction, the agar agar of enamels providing the perfect growth medium. In the same way that we find different colour schemes and different shapes as we move to different viewing positions so too, the paintings seem to grow. I’d swear at least one of them is a different work from that I saw on Sunday. But then again, maybe it’s just the heat!

For Karl Wiebke you make a mark or draw a line and then look at it and if there is an absence of thought then it is available. If chains of thoughts arise then scrap that beginning and start again. The journey has to be one of discovery, and one full of potential. Returning to the Wiebke “drawings” with their movement through the grid, their humour and irony, interstices, nodal points, and tensions between acrylics and enamels, you’ll find it difficult to pin the coordinates down. In some ways I’m reminded of looking down on the city and river at night from King’s Park – the shifting points of reference, the apparent absence of content in the dark untouchable part of the river’s heart. I am reminded of Barthes and the act of viewing, of a view from the Eiffel tower, of maps in the mind’s eye and movement through symbolic spaces.

And one shouldn’t forget the humour of the grid. The creation of illusion, the hallucinogenic effect without the determinism of mathematical tricks of the eye. It is the subversion of mathematical structure that creates different images, more than a specific will to trick or deceive. Playing against the predictability of geometric structure. But always the awareness that this might be possible. Our own small piece of the infinite. These are works in which Wiebke returns to lines after twenty-five years and asks where he is now.

The function of painting is to be looked at. The exhibition is one of the only times works can be viewed together – for comment, for participation. The painter confronts his work, the painter enters the public space of viewing. The public interact singularly, collectively, defining their own ways of seeing. First, there had been the activity of painting – an action, work – to paint. Then the work is finished and the painter asks – what do I have? When it is brought into the public space then it becomes a painting, a thing-in-itself. In the space of viewing, in the gallery, it becomes part of a cultural conversation, it becomes an artwork. In being written up and documented its place in the public space is determined and it retrospectively becomes Art. This process of fetishization, the market adding value to the work of the painter, is a long way down the track from the original decision to paint. What we have here is a journey, or even a series of journeys. The original journey of discovery for the painter, the journey of the public towards a position or positions of seeing, and a journey into cultural discourse. One asks when is a painting finished? And as we move the paintings move and change. In the space of absence, we instill our own visual biographies. The audience views to discover their own state of mind.

The spaces between the works are like the silences between notes. The gallery wall becomes a frame. Going back to the poem “Frame(d)” I should say that the title refers to Wiebke’s refusal to be labelled, for the painting to be kept in one place. He’s the only person I know for whom the outside of the box is where things are kept! Wiebke’s works grow and move out from their frames. A mistake becomes something new and alive. The poem “Frame(d)” comes from a book called Erratum/Frame(d). In a sense, every poem  begins as an accident and then the writer’s or indeed artist’s craft kicks in and gives the piece cogency, or the ability to be interpreted. The book becomes the nominal frame that holds the work, the printed page, but it is what happens outside the frame, in the eye or mind of the reader that becomes most interesting. If one looks at the book itself, the title floats in space, within the frame of the book. Maybe like the way the works of art that surround us are suspended in a seemingly “neutral space”. But the painting has emerged from a political space, it is alive and open to the environments around it. So possibly this supposed neutral display space is in fact a place of connections and potential. In fact, I’d argue it’s as far from neutral as you can get. It is dynamic and political. A place where correlations and oppositions may be created. A place of discourse. The space of the gallery becomes changing and active in itself. It is the sixteenth painting in this series.

As I have indicated, the book, like the exhibition, is a space of collective viewing. It creates its own discourses. I’d like to read two extracts from my novel Genre in which Karl Wiebke, the painter, makes an appearance, or two:

That bastard looks like Lucifer. ‘Fifteen Minutes’: as Warhol said, we shall have … As said, an anecdote becomes part of common usage and its associations are consequently enshrined as possible, likely, and then fact. It’s long enough to have sex, die, give birth, be launched into space, but it’s not very long at that. ‘of Pure Hell’: Hell as an absolute is outside moral judgement. Or even more so, it is utilitarian and usable, good Hell can only be good. It comes full circle. It’s as if the cultural imperialism of the form forbids the synthesis of their arguments. I have French and German, am read in Latin and Greek, and cannot understand them. Their dialogue is a series of rises and falls, I follow it by inference. Ten years ago I lived in Java for six months but I’ve forgotten every word of the language. I’d like to communicate with them but maybe it’s a blessing I can’t. They spend the whole time arguing. Wiebke piece in green and yellow streaks, or drip runs, one board fixed to a board half the size, like a thick L shape, stalactites and stalagmites of paint extended beyond or even denying the existence of borders. The painting denies space as much as it qualifies its existence, the classic Wiebke paradox. Set on a wall on its own it plays against the crossbeam between rooms, fits in Painting 96/1 (92-95). It lures you, you want to touch it, discover its mystery of paint simultaneously flowing in opposite directions. Movement ‘regards’ the frame, but how the frame defines what we ‘see’ within a particular space (include L diagram and flowchart – quote Ashbery) as much about viewing as a thing-in-itself.


She never shows me her work. I told her they reminded me of Artaud On Suicide. She didn’t comment. Unhealthy looking, I mean, really unhealthy looking. And the old guy went entirely to seed while they were there. Looked entirely crazy. Plenty of strange noises. Sent Bam Bam upstairs right off. He blamed us. And the other day the junky woman on the corner stood out the front and started screaming. We left her to it. Eventually her boyfriend came out and led her back indoors. I found his lack of interest fascinating. He didn’t even look up – kept reading his book. I was fixing my daughter’s bike and working hard on practising some sort of custody of the eyes. With Wiebke it is interesting to see him ‘working out of doors’, as the tactility of his work seems to sit particularly comfortably in the environment. The plant life, the corrugated iron fencing in the background, and his sparse ‘tools’ of the trade, actually speak something of the evolution of his pieces. Similarly, in the studio. I remember visiting Wiebke at work in his Fremantle ‘indoor’ studio about six years ago and was not surprised to find that the studio itself was in a sense becoming part of the work. Process is a two-way thing, it is worked upon as much by environment as it works on it. To quote the book: Carefully applying sequential coats, Wiebke relies upon natural organic factors of gravity, air movement and temperature to intervene, interact with the paint and help define the character of the work. The still, solvent and paint-filled air of the studio was working on his pieces. Pedestals had been moulded to dropsheets, to the floor, there was a sense of the paint returning against gravity. Wiebke, so much the aesthetic artist, has single-mindedly  pursued his notions: His work has been consistently concrete and without figurative references, due to preoccupation with materials and techniques of painting. I would argue against this; in his pursuit of notions of what lies beyond the frame, Wiebke has been exploring that which allows for the figurative. A work like ‘Henry Street 1993’ is an intensely lyrical piece. One has a preoccupation with the materials of painting because they are what allow the figurative to be expressed. Wiebke is interested in what is below the surface. He is, in fact, a molecular painter. Something of this can be seen in the work … The positioning of it … Roadside diner. ‘There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience.’ The PLAN. The pest control man into her apartment. She the Jehovah’s Witness. Too weird. Too dangerous. What’s lurking? ‘No one would suspect us because no one would think two people like us would be crazy enough…’ Dorothy Vallens on the seventh floor. Down in the back shed, his laboratory, he kept four fridges. They used heaps of electricity.

A technique used by the Renaissance Man, the novel’s main character, is to comment on exhibitions by doing the rounds with taperecorder in hand. Given the time, it would be an interesting process to take each of you, individually, around the gallery in this dynamic of reception. In a very condensed version it might go something like this:

13 Blue on white, acrylics on enamels on wood, grid, movement, primal, unstable points of viewing… 14 orange, grid closing to form knots and ropes of orange, yellow background potentially a parody of Western fetishization of Aboriginal dot paintings and appropriation of dreaming as commodity, distortion of song lines, also humorous play with exactness of geometry, the piece is dramatic… moving across central gallery space to 5… “Full Fathom Five” exploded red Pollock cross hatched borderline blues/purples 6… yellow white orange horizontal ripples crests tinged with soft fire paint organic growth outwards, unilaterally, suspends spatial references, changes with position of viewing… 7 verticals slightly diagonal green blue yellow… again depth, texture, desire to plunge the eye into the ripples, Coleridge’s synaesthesia, the eye as organ of touch… like the drawings, harmonics collapsing, rebuilding, carries a symphony to their confluences or nets of popular song… 8 marbled, vertical, blue ropes, cellular, spore-like deposits, infolds and extrusions, eruptions and wallowings, bacterial growth – valleys and crests like the rivers running through text, refer to essay on “Hydrography” for Postmodern Poetry conference… the occupation of space… 9 vertical off-white-blue and suppression of acitvity, the gift to the viewer is to occupy absence, consider Derrida’s readings of “the gift”, consider prayer as gift re painter… what is fascinating about Wiebke’s work is how a sense of Australian spatiality combines with European specificity – a European sense of the economy of space. He creates a hybrid that is unique and constantly reinvigorating itself.

Wiebke is always asking himself as he paints “am I using old tricks or am I a beginner?” He is saying that if you establish the tricks of the trade you establish style, which destroys creativity. He might also maintain that when style is established in language, it kills conversation. I feel the same way. Genre is a 300-page-plus paragraph that goes against style. I hope that it has the potential to generate ways of reading that I can’t even guess at, that it can never be pinpointed as coming from a particular style (though one critic in a favourable review did say the “style” was like “congealed email”!). It fuses “all’ genres.  Inspiration is the gift, and it is the artist who  passes that gift on to the public. It is inspiration and not “style” that Wiebke is concerned with. His work rejects classification. For me, his work doesn’t fit a particular thesis despite the enthusiasm of critics to locate it specifically.  He implores the audience to have their own creative interactions with his work. Reception is all important. He takes his painting quite literally. Karl maintains that the older he gets the finer the distinctions between things become and this opens up new ways of seeing. He offers these ways of seeing through the exhibition space. For Wiebke, generosity is a key part of his aesthetic.