7×7 in, 18×18 cm
40 Pages

Essay by Geoffrey Carr, PhD

Sharing a personal style of creating drawings, including images of various works.

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Mind Worlds | Essay

Drawn Into and Through: New Graphic Works of Shirley Wiebe

The universality of drawing—appearing as it does in every historical period and cultural setting—suggests that it is as essential to human communication as speech. Drawing provides the means for the rapid transfer of concepts and mental images, as well as for the drafting of more deliberate design. It is a foundational training exercise and the skeleton of composition, but also is an aesthetic object in its own right, making its own discrete demands on the artist and viewer.

For much of Shirley Wiebe’s career, drawing, if used at all, was supplemental rather than essential to her practice. Her sculptural and installation work depends more on a process of working through the possibilities of material in space—experiential, tactile, aleatory. This would change during an artist residency in Berlin in 2009-10.

The impact of the city’s history, architecture, and street life compelled Wiebe to explore a new artistic means of response. In her words, “Berlin felt like a throbbing heart, deeply alive with a pulse”—at once nostalgic, melancholic, frenetic. Her encounter in this same period with a number of Sigmar Polke’s graphic works at a Hamburg exhibition also fed her increasing interest in making drawings.

Wiebe’s initial piece, Thirty Days, comprises a month-long record of her psychic passage through the city. Made on paper fixed to a wall, the artist—often drawing on a ladder—tested the limits of medium and method—a flat, indelible surface further bounded by gravity, reach, and balance.

Significantly, drawing here is deployed not as a foundation or skeleton for more fully developed work, but instead as a sort of skin drawn over a psychic absence, a lacuna in memory made by the trauma of political oppression, familial diaspora, and ceaseless redevelopment.

During a visit to a ruined ancestral village in Ukraine, flooded to dam the Dnieper River, Wiebe found only an uncanny staircase deposited on the river bank. In Thirty Days, the form of this eerie architectural feature—disconnected from its initial location and function—serves as a mnemonic surrogate for obliterated place and the flight from persecution.

Thirty Days reveals a world of simultaneous attraction or repulsion—oscillating between dream and decay. Upon returning to Vancouver in 2011, Wiebe began a second serial drawing, Ninety Days, a further, fraught exploration of medium, method, and meaning.

Ninety Days is similarly suffused with a tension between fantasy and entropy. Oneric animal forms appear laid to rest, bound by useless, frayed cords and covered by a crumbling net of chain-link fencing. Tree rings mark discontinuous time and histories. And the tracing of the artist’s tools float on a separate stratum, ghostly white implements that promise making but also possibly demolition or even dismemberment.

The taut juxtaposition of childlike, organic forms with those of a monstrous and destructive modernity open a space of ambivalent reception, and this same ambivalence charges the other drawings collected in this text.

In “Splash”, a firmly drawn electrical plug authoritatively emerges from the playful, chance application of thick watercolour pigment, conjuring the complexities of control and power. Personal Impressions, derived from patterns visible in the human fingerprint, suggest both radical, particular identity—but also a menacing means of biometric control over the human subject. Staircase, a series of works on vellum, suture drawings together, negating through mating. And “Ramshackle” explores how the tree house—a territory of youthful freedom—shifts over time from a place of carefree innocence to a shelter, at times quite literally, of dereliction.

The works included in this book bracket Wiebe’s recent explorations of drawing, registering a shift from free play to resolve. These drawings are the product of a seasoned artist exploring a novel process. Consequently, they possess both a freshness and complexity, pushing past the limits of the medium into a vertiginous realm of dream and dread, memory and chance, meaning and oblivion.

Geoffrey Carr, PhD
Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory
University of British Columbia