The Imaginative Realism of Karl Priebe
Milwaukee master on display at Charles Allis
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.