Howard Arkley, the man who saw Australian suburbia in technicolour
Howard Arkley’s Family Home – Suburban Exterior 1993, on show at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. Photograph: Monash University collection/estate of Howard Arkley/Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art
Howard Arkley confessed to a love-hate relationship with the Australian suburbs but his paintings of their universality and peculiarity made him famous. In a week when several big-name international artists (Ai Weiwei and Grayson Perry) arrive on Australian soil, Arkley’s art continues to celebrate a vernacular that shrugs at the idea anything overseas is better.
In a 1999 interview at the Venice Biennale, where The Home Show, his paintings of Australian houses and their interiors, met with acclaim, Arkley reasoned that as the suburbs were where 95% of his fellow citizens lived: “Australians get my work straight away; they understand what’s being said and they understand they’re not being put down, it’s not satirical.”
Those paintings, created with a spray gun and stencils, shimmer with a dream-like kaleidoscope of colour and pattern. The homes in his meticulously outlined, totally smooth canvasses aren’t real dwellings, they’re fantasy concoctions playing with the aspirational prose of real estate adverts and the visual grammar of home-beautiful magazines. There are elements of pop art, of post-modern appropriation, of formalism, in their obsession with texture, line, colour and shape.
But as Howard Arkley and Friends an exhibition of more than 60 works and 150 sketches, notebooks and collages at TarraWarra Museum of Art reveals, the brick veneer house was only a phase in a Arkley’s rich artistic practice, which changed radically from its minimalist monochrome beginnings in the late 1970s.
‘Australians get my work straight away … it’s not satirical’: Howard Arkley, pictured in the Melbourne suburbs. Photograph: Martin Kantor/estate of Howard Arkley
His frenetic black and white “primitive” canvases of 1981-82 marked his move into figurative work and his rise to prominence in the Melbourne art scene. These were followed by explosively colourful works exploring a mix of imagery including masks, tattoos, cacti and succulents.
After the highs of Venice came a successful show in Los Angeles and his marriage in Las Vegas to a fellow artist, Alison Burton. Arkley took a series of photos in LA for his ongoing series of paintings based on freeways and overpasses, and was full of plans for future shows. But three days after arriving back in Melbourne he died of an accidental heroin overdose. He was 48.
The Freeway (1999). Photograph: estate of Howard Arkley
Arkley was a hard worker, intense and full of energy, says the painter Tony Clark, a close friend who also features in the exhibition. “The energy was to stave off the demons; he was ashamed of his drug use and kept it concealed. But he’d been excited by the idea of doing something edgy at the start.”
His suburban paintings were to some extent misunderstood, Clark says. “He was an abstractionist, not a chronicler of suburbia. His interest in high modernism was very strong but he was also wondering whether there could be a specific Australian contribution to that debate.”
That contribution started on his return from an artists’ residency in Paris in 1978; while there he’d taken a series of photographs of art nouveau and art deco metal grill work. Arkley realised the fly-screen doors of his suburban Melbourne upbringing had a similarly rich variety of design. This led to a series of colourful door-sized canvasses, using patterning borrowed from everyday sources such as wrought iron, shower curtains and knitting patterns.
Arabesque Face (1990). Photograph: estate of Howard Arkley/Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art
Arkley was also drawn to Islamic design and orientalism. In a 1977 notebook are his scribbles from an art magazine article on the nature of pattern painting as “non-sexist, historically conscious, sensuous and romantic”.
Clark’s work features in the “friends” section of the TarraWarra exhibition, alongside collaborations with Juan Davila, Jenny Watson and John Nixon. The artists Elizabeth Gower and Christine Johnson, both ex-wives of Arkley, also feature alongside other members of his circle and Melbourne’s vibrant 80s arts scene, where artists, film and theatre people, fashion designers, publishers and musicians worked cheek by jowl.
“We all realised something pretty extraordinary was happening,” says Clark, “that sense of do-it-yourself was rampant. As Nick Cave [another friend of Arkley’s] said, ‘There was nothing to lose and no expectations.’”
Arkley’s style changes can be linked to his tastes in music, according to the art historian Chris McAuliffe. The early, stripped-back work coincided with an interest in progressive jazz before he discovered punk at CBGBs in New York.
“He saw Talking Heads, the Ramones and Blondie,” says McAuliffe, who points to electronica and punk’s stripping away of inessentials in search of emotional intensity as a major influence. On his return to Australia in 1978, Arkley discovered Melbourne’s own thriving punk scene. “With punk came energy, graffiti-like gestures, he ramped up the colour. He wanted to see how much energy he could put in a painting before it exploded.”
In his last years Arkley moved his studio from the city back to the suburbs. As a child he’d grown up in Surrey Hills, the same neat lower-middle class neighbourhood as the artist John Brack. Where Brack’s style favoured sharp outlines and large blocks of single colours to portray a drab and claustrophobic world, for Arkley – 30 years his junior – the world was a different place.
Melbourne, even its outer reaches, was a creative environment. Arkley was celebrating diversity where those from a previous generation, such as Brack and Barry Humphries, saw conformity, says the exhibition’s co-curator Anthony Fitzpatrick. “He’d originally said he felt an outsider from the suburbs. Later he said they were quite simply his life.”
• Howard Arkley and Friends is at TarraWarra Museum of Art until 28 February 2016
Article by Fiona Gruber, The Guardian, UK