Pressing open the imposing iron-wrought doors of Scott Livesey’s Armadale gallery one is struck by both the size of the opening night crowd on such a chilly Melbourne autumn evening and the striking, free-flowing vibrant palette that imbues the paintings lining its walls by Australian artist Luke Sciberras. Both stand as a testament to the artist, highly regarded for his use of rich earth tones, used to stunning effect in his early McDonnell Ranges paintings in particular, Sciberras’ exhibition, Escarpment, marks a new stage in the artist’s career journey through the Australian landscape.
The influence of Sciberra’s friend and mentor, John Olsen, is clearly evident in the lines and painterly manipulation of Australia’s ancient scorched and mountainous topography. But these works reveal so much more.
Immediately challenging is the artist’s striking complementary use of cobalt blue, ultramarine and emerald green, washing through so many of the works. The rising mountain ranges cloaked in burnt sienna, crimsons and rich umbers stand proud too against the artist’s intelligent use of negative space. In part, the works look rushed and the drawing wayward but taken as a whole the collection successfully forms in the artists words “a crucible” of the works, relationships and experiences borne of his time in the Western Desert.
Luke Sciberras, Study for Boab Beach (2018) Photo: Scott Livesey Galleries
Most recognisable is the artist’s respect for Country, while standing of course outside the aboriginal tradition. Sciberras’ says this collection of works “holds in crucible form, the land its people and Art that is made in mutual admiration”. It would be tempting no doubt in composing works in isolation to imbue the paintings with their symbolism and indigenous storytelling. But that is not for this artist.
Instead, Sciberras’ dialogue with the Wunambai Gaambera and Dambimangari peoples of Western Australia among others respectfully weaves its own narrative. It is a delicate balancing act, of two traditions, that brings to mind probably one of Australia’s best known artists, Albert Namatjira (1902-1959), who like Sciberras straddled two worlds.
Luke Sciberras, Morning Glory, Fat Boabs WA Photo: Scott Livesey Galleries
Luke Sciberras, Kimberley Beach Pattern (2018) Photo: Scott Livesey Galleries
Luke Sciberras, Nightfall, Osborne Islands, WA (2018) Photo: Scott Livesey Galleries
Namatjira's paintings are also expressions of his personal relationship with the central Australian landscape, in particular, Western Aranda (Arrernte) country to which he was spiritually bound. Namatjira's distinctive deep blue and purple shadows of Mount Hermannsburg, the iron red of Standley Chasm and Glen Helen Gorge, the gnarled white trunks of ghost gums and river red gums have etched their way into the Australian psyche and to my mind, either directly or unconsciously into Sciberras' paintings.
To me, Sciberra’s similar use of tones - although perhaps overly saturated at times - is not in any sense derivative of Namatjira’s iconic watercolours, but rather an extension of this artistic device of representing the relationship of the indigenous peoples to such a unique land, and in this instance through the lens of the cross-cultural relationships that transverse it.
For all this, I remain somewhat skeptical as to the motivation of an artist and its supporting gallery in placing washed sketches or studies alongside completed paintings. But in this case, the intoxicating fluidity of the artist's technique is on full display and the studies are a valuable reference, created in the remoteness of the outback, to the larger works.
Albert Namatjira, Untitled (1955) Photo: NGA
In viewing the collection of Sciberras' gouaches and oil paintings, I am struck by the fragility of the landscape portrayed by the artist. The vulnerability of the landscape to the harsh, unrelenting elements of the Australian environment can never be lost on those who have experienced it. Sciberras works represent a new way of presenting such imagery, made so familiar to us by the iconic works of Namajirra.
Across town, at Flinders Lane Gallery, Kathryn Ryan’s breathtaking, emotive depictions of Victoria’s ragged coastline on display in her exhibition South West Coast embrace the dichotomy between the windswept coastline’s majesty and its vulnerability. Ryan, regarded as one of the leading lights of a new wave of New Romanticists, has a long connection to Warrnambool and the surrounding Western District. These works speak volumes for that special relationship, while taking Australian landscape painting to a new place – no small achievement.
Ryan’s charcoals and large oil paintings remind me of my childhood collection of photo-laden souvenir rulers my grandmother would bring back for me from her grand tours of the Great Ocean Road. This is a good thing. Immediately, within my heart, I am there with the artist looking out at Loch Ard Gorge or the Twelve Apostles, staring seaward from Apollo Bay or rugged up against the blustering winds lashing the coastal town of Warrnambool. Standing stoically against the elements are the stately cypress pines that are somehow out-of-place in the Australian milieu yet provide a familiar shelter and dramatic outline against the vast, often darkening sky. All of this combines to define Ryan’s work.
Kathryn Ryan at the installation of her exhibition, South West Coast Photo: Compliments of the artist
Like Sciberras, Ryan chooses her subject intuitively, relying on her special relationship with and observations of the land and all who pass over it. The revelation is in her technique. Ryan has a talented hand for drawing, and no doubt an abundance of patience. Her paintings are meticulously detailed depictions, and the success of her efforts are there for us all to see. Each layer of paint on the silhouetted pines are carefully applied, with a fine rigger brush, ensuring her slow and methodical approach. No small feat given the paintings are on such large canvases. The coastal landscapes employ a wet-on-wet technique which gives the oceans lapping the base of the cliffs and beaches their luminosity and movement.
Bringing these elements together in her latest body of work, the viewer is drawn to witness the fragility of the sandstone and decaying coastline fixed by the perhaps incongruous vegetation that prevents it all slipping away into the ocean – as has already been seen with the Twelve Apostles now reduced to eight (peculiarly, there were only ever nine).
Kathryn Ryan, Home Paddock (2018) Photo: Flinders Lane Gallery
Kathryn Ryan, South West Paddocks Photo: Flinders Lane Gallery
Ryan’s paintings in this way tug at the viewer’s emotional experience of these familiar places. In saying this, the paintings are not didactic. Whilst they are depicting a point in our landscape, in an alternative sense they do not take us physically anywhere. Rather, they leave us to ponder in isolation. The works leave the viewer with a sense of lonesomeness, facing the elements and a chasm of uncertainty. For more than a moment, all surrounding noise is lost. One is left with to wrestle a multitude of internal thoughts and feelings.
I have written about this artistic phenomena before, as have many, many other better scribes of course. But the impact of these painters on the viewer is not the ordinary, everyday. The power of these paintings comes about via a combination of well-thought through ideas and something much deeper, the artist’s instinctive reliance on, and respect for, relationships – with people, with the land and with dearly-held or iconic imagery. In this Sciberras and Ryan respectfully and masterfully connect us in a new way with an old tradition of painting Country.
Escarpment, new paintings by Luke Sciberras runs until 9 June at Scott Livesay Gallery in Armadale, Melbourne.
South West Coast, new paintings by Kathryn Ryanruns until 16 June at Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne.
Main Photo: Luke Scibberras Photo: The Australian
Luke Sciberras, Boab on Steep Head (2018 Photo: Scott Livesay Galleries
Kathryn Ryan, Twelve Apostles 3 (2018) Photo: Flinders Lane Gallery
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia