The best art shows to see in Sydney this weekend

William Delafield Cook (1936-2015) was the perfect expatriate artist. He left Australia in the late 1950s and would spend most of his life in London, where he blended in smoothly with the British art scene. His paintings, however, returned perpetually to Australia. In this, he was like Sidney Nolan, although their work was poles apart.

A Closer Look at the Olsen Gallery brings together pictures by the artist and his son, Jonathan Delafield Cook – a chip off the ol’ block if ever there were one. Where Cook senior painted in a painstaking photo-realist style, Cook junior’s chosen medium is charcoal. His drawings of flowers and icebergs (not in combination!) have staggering delicacy and precision.

William Delafield Cook’s Landscape II (1997).

This form of intense realism is adored by the public and often dismissed by the cognoscenti, who find it too banal and technique-driven. I can see their point because capturing a near-photographic likeness can be a hollow achievement if there’s nothing else to distinguish an image. The surprise with this show is how fresh Delafield Cook’s paintings look after an interval of almost 10 years in which they’ve been largely absent from exhibitions and museum hangs. Although Delafield Cook never disguised his reliance on the camera, what’s most remarkable about these works is the degree to which they transcend the photographic. His paintings of dams and nondescript hills studded with trees are not at all as naturalistic as they appear at first glance. Look again at a picture such as Landscape II (1997) and it feels slightly unnerving that the sky is a flawless pale blue without a hint of a cloud. The trees are more greeny-grey than anything one finds in the bush, and the grassy foreground is a mass of tiny, shuddering brushstrokes.

William Delafield Cook’s Haystack (1998).

Everything is a bit too much: too flat, too bright, too grey-green. It’s as if Delafield Cook has taken Fred Williams’ vital insight that the Australian landscape had no focal point (which Williams saw as a great opportunity) and given it a classical twist. Delafield Cook’s classicism is even more apparent in Haystack (1998), and Earthwork 2 (2007-8). Standing directly in front of the motif, the artist turns a pile of gravel into a pyramid and a haystack into a ziggurat. His perfectly symmetrical paintings of dams portray miraculous, luminous slivers of water in the midst of flat, dry land.

It’s one of the characteristics of classical art that it strives for a sense of timelessness, and this is typical of the work of both Delafield Cooks. If anything, the father’s paintings are improving with age. It’s too early to say the same about the son’s drawings, but they are so studied in their neutrality, so divorced from context, they lie beyond the boundaries of style.

Luke Sciberras’ Nightlife, Wilcannia.

At King Street Gallery on William, Luke Sciberras takes a completely contrary approach to the Australian landscape in a show titled From Scratch. Where the Delafield Cooks proceed in a methodical, cerebral manner, Sciberras is all spontaneous expression. These paintings were inspired by the landscape around Wilcannia, a region the artist has visited dozens of times. On most occasions he has found the Darling-Barka River to be completely dry, but not this time. The recent rains have created a swollen torrent “sixty or seventy metres across”.

All that water brings a surge of new life, and this is what Sciberras has set out to capture – not the details of flowers, trees and bushes, but his feelings of exhilaration in seeing that dry region in bloom. In the large painting The Road to Wattle Flat the mood is almost psychedelic, with the picture saturated in the bright yellow of the wattle. Most artists would be a little more sparing with yellow, a colour that tends to leap off the wall, but Sciberras, perhaps channelling Vincent van Gogh, has thrown aside his inhibitions.

Luke Sciberras’ The Road to Wattle Flat.

He keeps up the energy when the sun goes down, in paintings such as Nightlife, Wilcannia and Too Hot to Sleep, in which darkness descends as a curtain of cobalt blue that barely manages to subdue the colours of the day – the oranges, whites and rusty reds – which are still emitting heat. The vitality of these pictures is both infectious and relentless. It’s a personality test for the viewer as to whether one enters into the spirit of these exuberant creations or finds them too overwhelming, like a great shaggy dog that wants to jump up at you and lick your face.

There’s a vulgarity about these works, a willingness to disregard the niceties of tone and composition, and simply pile in. One suspects Sciberras couldn’t do it any other way. It’s hard to imagine him as Jeffrey Smart, painting with a maulstick in one hand, scaling up a picture from a detailed study. His approach is hit-or-miss, but the hits can be spectacular.

David Collins’ Sea Window.

It is, of course, possible for an artist to be loose and expressive, but much more subtle in every other way. A perfect example is David Collins, whose show Adrift at Defiance Gallery, trembles on the brink of abstraction, but never loses touch with the landscape or the bodies of water that provide a theme. While Sciberras is an extroverted artist, Collins is a textbook introvert, whose work invites a more contemplative response. As a point of contrast, when Collins paints a yellow picture, as in Bald Head or Sea Window, he includes several different tones, from the most vivid to a dirty ochre. He has the brushwork of an abstract expressionist, but the sensibility of a monk illuminating a manuscript.

Danielle Bergstrom’s Calling.

It’s tempting to see Danelle Bergstrom’s Entwined at Arthouse Gallery as a meeting place for all the work discussed so far. Bergstrom paints the landscape near Hill End in a naturalistic manner, but with thinned-down oils that imbue each canvas with a dreamy, misty atmosphere. We might be looking at the bush in the early morning, as the heat kicks in and moisture rises from the earth. In other paintings, such as Calling or Surrender, the haze seems to be caused by smoke lingering in the aftermath of a bushfire.

There are abstract elements in Bergstrom’s work and an obvious emotional response to her surroundings. She relies on precise observation much more closely than Sciberras or Collins but avoids the exacting realism of the Delafield Cooks. Some of her landscapes are as liquid and romantic as Sidney Long’s art nouveau fantasies of the bush, although without a cast of mythological beings. The show even includes a large video piece, in which the camera seems to pass through the paintings, immersing the viewer in scenes that appear in static guise on the gallery walls.

Danielle Bergstrom’s Surrender.

Bergstrom has made enormous progress over the past decade, as a painter of both landscapes and portraits, earning a first-ever survey exhibition, commencing at the end of this month at the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. It’s yet another example of a regional gallery celebrating the work of a notable landscape artist when the major art museums are looking elsewhere. We’ve travelled a long way since the days of Federation when the entire nation defined itself according to a mythical notion of the Bush promulgated by organs such as the Bulletin. Now that we have come to see the landscape as something to be enjoyed rather than conquered, it seems to have been pushed to the margins of institutional consciousness.

William Delafield Cook and Jonathan Delafield Cook: A Closer Look is at the Olsen Gallery until April 1.

Luke Sciberras: From Scratch is at King Street Gallery on William until April 8.

David Collins: Adrift is at Defiance Gallery until March 25.

Danelle Bergstrom: Entwined is at the Arthouse Gallery until March 25.

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