It’s almost impossible to imagine ‘pure’ abstraction in art but Karl Wiebke takes us to the brink. His Seven Paintings at Liverpool Street Gallery avoid all the usual associations we habitually attach to an abstract work, being not suggestive of landscapes, figures, or architectonic details such as doors or windows.
So what do we see? Something closer to smoke than substance. Faint lines swirl around each canvas, seemingly at random, but in reality guided by a deliberate aesthetic strategy. As always with Wiebke the process is a crucial determinant of the outcome.
I wish I could discuss that process in more detail but these are paradoxical paintings. Although each piece gives the impression of vast depths and numerous layers, the surfaces are completely flat. There has been a lot of painting but also a lot of sanding back. The final outcome creates a sense of visual porosity as we gradually begin to perceive underlying patterns of line and colour. The effect, which is almost subliminal, defies reproduction. Not even the most high-resolution photo could capture the electric charge that seems to emanate from G7 Orange, or do justice to the subtleties of G7 Muted White.
Wiebke migrated to Australia in 1981 at the age of 37 but his artistic and philosophical roots remain thoroughly German. I’m thinking of the country that gave us philosophers in search of the Absolute, such as Hegel and Schelling; or rigorous, methodical painters such as Gerhard Richter. Wiebke’s work has the same uncompromising intensity and ambition.
Painting is no mere pastime for Wiebke, and only incidentally a career. He approaches the task as if it were a matter of life and death. He knows the painter has the job of making something out of nothing – or more pedantically, out of coloured substances arranged on a surface. In terms of its impact that ‘something’ can be tremendously powerful, even without the prop of recognisable imagery.
Speaking about process in Wiebke’s work is to recognise the hours, days and weeks of patient labour that have gone into this show. Yet painting, which the German Romantics once fondly believed to be an exact science, does not admit of perfection. For Wiebke this is no reason not to try. Each work has been pushed towards some ideal that can never be fully realised. These painstaking, hand-made artefacts remain as intangible as thoughts that drift through our minds without ever achieving articulation.
At Artereal in Rozelle, Ebony Russell’s Sad Birthday looks at a tipping point in life when birthdays feel less like a cause of celebration and more like intimations of mortality. For Russell the sad birthday was her 39th, when she became aware of indisputable middle age looming on the horizon. I felt like that at 29 – by 39 I was past caring. Whenever it arrives, this is the moment when we ask ourselves if we’ve been living like the ant or the grasshopper: working patiently towards a greater goal or just enjoying ourselves and putting off the big decisions.
Russell decided to stage her own cathartic celebration with a series of porcelain faces composed with a cake-decorating tool. The results are suitably bizarre, looking like the fetishes of an unknown tribe with a predilection for soft tints of rose and blue. Most of the faces are glum, with downturned mouths and blank stares. One mask has tiny golden golden ballerinas lodged in its eye sockets, another sheds floods of golden tears. The blobs and strands of porcelain can resemble worms or encrustations of barnacles. The odd crack hasn’t caused Russell any grief as it only adds to to the mock-misery of the display.
In the series she calls Canyons, Russell has constructed small craggy mountains from layers of piped porcelain. The forms may be Gothic but the colour scheme is predominantly pink and white. These pieces have taken a long time to complete as each separate layer of clay has had to cure before a new one can be applied. It sounds fiendishly difficult.
The miniature mountains rest on sheets of glass. When we look down we see the artist has installed mirrors on the bottom of the plinths revealing that each configuration spells out a phrase such as ‘Sugar and Spice’ or ‘Naughty and Nice’. These works are virtual models of the aging process, each layer representing a year or so of life. As the peak grows higher and thinner it takes us ever further from those childish phrases at the base.
Finally we come to two hyperdecorative vases in pink and blue, made from hundreds of tiny porcelain fragments. Christened: Decorative Urn: Blue and Hopeless and Decorative Urn: Pink and Useless, they continue the ongoing conflict between soft, seductive colour and personal disenchantment. Porcelain is such an exquisite, seductive material it’s not often employed as an instrument of irony.
Where Russell has created mountains from the most delicate of substances, Lea Ferris at Defiance Gallery has taken the opposite course, making a sculptures of coral from coloured marbles sourced from many different parts of the world. Her Homage to the Reef is a fantasia of coloured, organic-looking forms transplanted into the clinical space of the art gallery.
In an artist’s note Ferris points out that what was coral millions of years ago is coloured marble today. In this exhibition she is reversing the process, transforming the marble back into its original form. It’s a labour-intensive enterprise that has been years in preparation, but it’s not as difficult as the task of restoring Australia’s coral reefs to their previous glory. To do that our politicians will have to start taking climate change seriously, a feat that requires at least a rudimentary form of conscience.
Upstairs at Defiance Dave Teer’s Finite monuments, infinite amnesia reflects on last year’s bushfire crisis and the speed with which we have forgotten that seemingly unforgettable trauma. His response is an epic series of abstract paintings in which colours flicker like flames and ash, along with a suite of freestanding sculptures that give the show its title.
Teer has never been unwilling to experiment but these works are a startling departure from his better-known metal sculptures. Rough, blackened columns rise up from classical pediments like burnt tree trunks growing out of the ruins of a classical culture. As the column rises higher a radical transformation takes place, with the vertical movement being interrupted by a biomorphic form that might be a human figure, an insect or part of a tree. Each form has been professionally gilded, like a monument of an ancient civilisation.
This show could be viewed as a celebration of nature’s powers of self-renewal but also as a comment on our own obtuseness. Does something have to glisten before we pay attention? While the golden forms act as capitals for the blackened columns they also pun on another kind of capital that seems to be in perpetual war with nature.
Karl Wiebke: Seven Paintings
Liverpool Street Gallery, 12 November – 5 December, 2020
Ebony Russell: Sad Birthday
Artereal, until 4 – 28 November, 2020
Lea Ferris: Homage to the Reef
Dave Teer: Finite monuments, infinite amnesia
Defiance Gallery, 18 November – 10 December, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November, 2020