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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013

The Imaginative Realism of Karl Priebe

Milwaukee master on display at Charles Allis

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By the 1930s, the slow erosion of racial barriers had reached such a degree in America’s larger cities that a new cultural type emerged. This individual, classified as a “hipster” by Norman Mailer in his essay “The White Negro,” rejected the staid safety of white society for the untapped possibilities he or she saw in African American culture. Such a cultural crossover determined the artistic identity of Milwaukee painter Karl Priebe (1914-1976). After spending a number of formative years immersed in Chicago’s flourishing African American arts scene, Priebe’s own work was never the same.

A significant number of the paintings in the Charles Allis Art Museum’s new exhibition “Wisconsin Masters: Karl Priebe” (through Jan. 19, 2014) bear the mark of this decisive influence. For example, two blue portraits of jazz vocalist and Priebe’s friend, Billie Holiday, demonstrate that the artist could handle his blues as well as Lady Day could croon hers.

Priebe’s paintings remind one of the appeal of formalism—the aesthetic theory that the relationships between lines and colors determine the potency of an artwork. There is an unfinished quality to many of the works, yet the crispness of line and atmospheric use of color yield an affecting and effective aesthetic experience.

“Realism filtered through the imagination,” is how Priebe described his style. Equally aptly, the catalogue from the artist’s 1943 New York exhibition praised the “lyrical otherworldliness” of the work. Priebe’s subject matter—usually an African American woman or a bird—is always representational: hence the realism. But the subjects are seen through a glass whimsically. Inscrutable spherical symbols (e.g. lemons and ornaments) recur. Subjects are situated against abstract backgrounds or otherwise indeterminate spaces. In short, there is a mysterious aspect to many of the paintings that suggests the functioning of a creative mind’s irrepressible imagination.