Exhibition review: Luke Sciberras, Side of the Sky

A timeless painting survey exhibition demonstrates the power of the medium when a world is hooked on 'immersive' art experiences.

This is a big painting show! And just when one gets through viewing it, one is reminded it is only half. Luke Sciberras: Side of the Sky is being staged concurrently across Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C) and Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG).

It is almost as if Sciberras is making up for lost time; this mid-career survey of one of Australia’s most celebrated artists of his generation, has been long in coming.

We review C-A-C’s presentation of Side of the Sky, a body of work that spans 25 years of the Campbelltown-born artist’s practice. It alone is exhaustive, moving as it does between expansive paintings, to collections of loose sheets from the artist’s sketch book. It is almost like an anatomy class in ‘process’.

Sciberras grew up in and around the Campbelltown arts community of Wedderburn – the subject of many of his paintings. Then, as an adult, made his home the artist community of Hill End near Bathurst. Both locations are surrounded by the Australian bush.

Home is one of the enduring themes explored in earthy tones across this exhibition, as well as chapters of travel. Sciberras spent time at Gallipoli; travelled to the Flinders Rangers (SA) – captured in the main gallery – and Wilcannia (Darling River Baaka area), both in 2008. A decade later he was in the Kimberley Coast (WA); then the almost mythologised destination of Belle Ile, in France, where Monet and the Australian impressionist John Peter Russell painted.

Often Sciberras would take these painting journeys with other artists; but always, they were an exercise in en plein air – working outdoors to capture the atmosphere and spirit of a landscape.

Read: Why painting en plein air is booming

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this exhibition is that it allows viewers to witness that journey of creativity – starting as a small sketch, becoming a small study on canvas, and then eventually a monumental painting.

Installation view Luke Sciberras: Side of the Sky at Campbelltown Art Centre. Photo ArtsHub.

This kind of grouping keeps the scale of this show digestable, so viewers can easily read those shifts between times of day, locations and concerns across galleries, almost like chapters in a book – interconnected and yet of their own spaces.

While this mapping of a 25-year career demonstrates a honing of skill by Sciberras – and a very personal visual language of abstraction – it also, more subtly, allows the viewer to witness a shift as he paints on Country with First Nations Communities, understands remoteness, drought, flood, and isolation – influences that move beyond a mere physical place.

The most personal thing I can say about my paintings is that they are not so much ‘of’ a place but ‘about’ my being there.

Luke Sciberras, artist

While some artists are prolific by nature, the true test is their consistency. Sciberras is indisputably a master of his generation.

All the words we use to describe painting – gesture, mark making, line, form, texture, weight, space, light, tone – are as much the subjects of Sciberras’ paintings as are the places he captures.

For some, these might be thought of as ‘old fashioned’ paintings, but in a post-pandemic period when the immersive art experience has been capturing attention and headlines, Sciberras demonstrates just how powerful – and palpable – painting can be.

These works sit well on a wall. They are full of energy; full of passion. And while this exhibition is a deserving nod to a well-earned career, it is also a much broader nod to a genre of painting as old as Australian art history itself that mythologises the bush and places Sciberras within a lineage of artists.

It is not surprising that many of these works have an echo then, of the works by artists such as Elisabeth Cummings – who taught him to draw as a teen and over the years travelled and painted together – and fellow Wedderburn artists David Fairbairn, John Peart, Roy Jackson and David Hawkes, or Euan Maclead – all of whom have allowed the bush to permeate their DNA with an abstract inflection.

While a generation older than Sciberras, they all speak of landscape as an ageless connection – one that for many is renewed in our times as we battle conversations of climate change and environmental degradation.

In this aspect, this exhibition has an appeal and timeliness for all viewers. But for any artist serious about painting, it is a must.

And if you miss it, then treat yourself to the stunning monograph that has been published. It is one of those books that will live ‘off the shelf’, and rather by your side for a constant return ‘flick’.

Luke Sciberras: Side of the Sky is showing concurrently at Campbelltown Arts Centre from 4 June – 7 August, and Bathurst Regional Art Gallery from 11 June – 7 August.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina