Poets and Painters: Opening Karl Wiebke’s 1998 Festival of Perth Exhibition at Galerie Düsseldorf

I first came across Karl Wiebke’s work in the mid-80s and was immediately struck with a compelling need to express my interaction with it in terms of the literary as well as the visual. Here was an artist bending the language of artwork in the same way that the avant-garde poets and writers I had been following in Europe and the Americas were bending the stuff of poetic language. Where they were linguistically innovative, Wiebke was visually innovative. For me, Wiebke was both a poet and linguist working with paint. Interestingly enough, Karl and I talked of doing a project mixing my text with his painting. A tentative beginning was made but the next step is still to be taken – a bit difficult given the physical distance that now separates us. Still, I am able to interact with Karl’s work by writing about it and also including it in features on the international avant-garde such as the one I am now preparing for Artes, the journal of the Swedish Academy. I rather like the idea of Karl’s painting leaving the frame of the page and running into the text of the speech of last year’s Nobel Laureate! And given this interest, it is probably not surprising that the talk I’ll give on Thursday will in fact be titled “Karl Wiebke: Writerly Painter”.

Karl is a complex and yet accessible painter. I say accessible in the sense that his images immediately stimulate the subconscious, stir chthonic associations. They are paintings about space and the field of vision, about the way we view artworks, about the position of the artist in relation to the work. He is driven by the wonder of discovery, exploring the human’s relationship to the world. 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 artwork 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. His are meta-textual pieces. They areÊ conscious of process but not intrusively so. For such a complex painter-poet, he is also an incredibly direct one. He is not pretentious and does not hide behind gimmickry. He is directly in contact with his material. This is a tactile relationship. Paint is a living thing for Karl – it travel 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. But more of these things on the 19th.

Last Thursday I was teaching a seminar for Commonwealth and International Literature students in Cambridge and in attempting to convey the Australian notion of space and spatiality I mentioned Les Murray’s poem “The Quality of Sprawl”. These lines, strangely, brought to mind a number of Karl’s paintings:


Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.
It is the rococo of being your own still centre.

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.

Another aspect of the Wiebke “oeuvre”, and another writerly one, is the confluence of modernity and the totemic – as expressed in his earlier cycles of sticks with their bar-coded spiritual suggestiveness. In every work of Wiebke’s you’ll see this interaction between the new and the “primal”. (We have it here in Sensurround!)

This is an exciting exhibition – full of life. Moving around and viewing each piece from as many different angles as possible, you’ll find each work becomes many works – in fact, there are really a hundred exhibitions in one here – the colours, shapes, textures, and depths change – you are moving in and out of the pieces, creating with the artist. You confront questions of content, or “absence of”, and construct your own small piece of the infinite. In the substantial work entitled “Feet” you might move in and through an Australian landscape, through the burnt poisonous greens, into the text of seeing. But sure enough, you will move. These are works that positively ripple! I’d like to draw particular attention to the Wiebke “drawings” with their movement through the grid, their humour and irony,Ê interstices, nodal points, and tensions between acrylics and enamels. These are works in which Wiebke returns to lines after twenty five years and asks where he is now.

Some years ago a critic in The West Australian talked of the “ravishing palette of Wiebke” – well, Wiebke’s palette is actually part of his work. Each painting is a kind of palette. As a writer, I have taken this as a clear sign that one can incorporate both Karl and his work into one’s creative writing as well as criticism. His work becomes a character in a novel – moving in and out of the private-public space of author and reader. He translates beauty and truth but is always aware that “art” can deceive. This is why he so strongly stresses the relationship of the artist to artwork, as anyone who has spoken to Karl even briefly on his aesthetic will know. Karl, the Writerly Painter, has helped this Writer be, hopefully, something of a Painterly Writer.