The Fantasy Paintings of Karl Priebe
A new show features Karl Priebe’s dreamlike images of birds and jazz performers.
It is the 1950s and a drawing of Billie Holiday is made. She stands slightly turned away, her eyes dark and delicate mouth pursed.
The soft blue background is punctuated by glowing orbs like stage lights but no other people can be seen; we are the only audience. Except for the artist, of course. The hand behind the drawing belongs to Karl Priebe who was born in Milwaukee in 1914. Artistically coming of age through training at the Layton School of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Priebe sidestepped the Regionalist, Midwestern-themed subjects that were prevalent in the 1930s and onward in favor of more personal interests. His connections in the creative arts and jazz world ran deep, and he developed friendships with luminaries such as Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington.
A small retrospective is on view at the Charles Allis Art Museum through Sunday, January 19 as part of their Wisconsin Masters series. Priebe, who died in 1976, is represented by works from the late 1930s through the 1970s which provide a broad sample of some of his primary subjects. The jazz musicians he hung out with on the south side of Chicago were a major influence in his life and work, as were other people he met in the African American community. His work often features black figures, not always as portraits but as visualized figures incorporated into dreamlike atmospheres.
Birds were another favorite subject. Typically, the feathery flocks are shown on the ground or nestled in trees. One of the larger pieces in the show, Untitled (Woodpeckers), is like an imagined landscape with the aforementioned bird, who is happily installed on a trunk-like form with a large chunk taken out by a sharply efficient beak. Other birds on similar perches can be spotted in the back but not much else as the details of place are subsumed by brilliant mists of green and blue.
While drawn from real experiences, Priebe’s work carries us into elegantly suggested places and situations represented in deep, jewel-like hues. He often worked with casein, which is along the lines of tempera paint, but with Priebe’s handling has effects very much like pastels. Pen and ink are another favored medium, which often shows on diminutive drawings made as holiday or birthday greetings, featured as combinations of artifact and artistic composition.
The quality of Priebe’s work makes this a jewel of an exhibition. He is often described as a “fantasy” painter, and given the evocative nature of his work this rings quite true. This is pure introspection and a play to one’s imagination, existing quite outside commentary on the social or political events of its time. As Priebe described it as, “tempered realism…realism filtered through the imagination.”
Wisconsin Masters: Karl Priebe continues through Sunday, January 19 at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Avenue.
EXHIBITIONS OPENING AND CLOSING THIS WEEK
SATURDAY, JANUARY 4
Tea for Two
Marshall Building, 1st Floor
207 E. Buffalo Street
All the accoutrements for tea, from pots to cups and more, are part of this exhibition showcasing work by more than 30 artists
Rodger Bechtold: The Nature of Things
Jeremy Popelka: Veiled Monuments
Ben Grant: I’ve Got On With It A Little All The Same
233 N. Milwaukee Street
Tory Folliard Gallery opens three new exhibitions this Saturday featuring landscapes by Rodger Bechtold, sand cast glass sculptures by Jeremy Popelka, and colorful paintings by Ben Grant.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 5
Milwaukee Art Museum
700 N. Art Museum Drive
Thomas Sully: Painted Performance is a retrospective exhibition highlighting one of the premier American painters of the nineteenth century. Sully’s portraits feature actors and society figures, some in the guise of themselves and others shown as who they might like to be (see the TCD review for more about this exhibition).
Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia
2220 N. Terrace Avenue
This exhibition features striking and surprising examples of modern textile design from Afghanistan. A blend of historical tradition and imagery is woven into visual remembrances of military conflict, drawing from local politics as well as incursions by outsiders, including the Soviet presence in the 20th century and the American combatants of the 21st.