(Australia 05 May 1951–22 Jul 1999)
200.0 x 300.6 x 4.2cm stretcher
The spread of suburbia into the countryside after the postwar housing shortage became a defining feature of the Australian way of life. The ideology of 1950s suburban togetherness fermented the psyche of those who inhabited the endless stretches of fibro and brick veneer, with their laminex surfaces and mod cons. As Gertrude Stein said of suburbia ‘there’s no there there’. Yet behind the triple-fronted brick veneer walls and underlying the fantasy of ‘Better Homes & Gardens’, lay a reality for many of childhood boredom, marital tension, isolation and conservatism.
Australian artists (except perhaps John Brack and Barry Humphries) have by and large disregarded suburbia, gravitating instead to, and thriving in, the city’s mean streets. Or, like Fred Williams, they took off for the bush to paint rural landscapes. Or to the desert, like Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan. But suburbia was not ignored by Howard Arkley, who would collect out-of-register colour pages from outdated magazines, or lovingly ponder different ways of rendering woodgrain surfaces or rug patterns with his reverberating airbrush.
Beginning as an abstract painter in the 1970s, then turning to figurative painting in the 1980s, Arkley reconciled the two tendencies in his distinctive take on the suburban motif. By 1983, at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, he began his first domestic interior paintings (‘Suburban interior’). In 1987 and 1988 he focused on the external appearance of brick veneer (‘Suburban exterior’).
Starting with preliminary rapidograph pen drawings, sourced from outmoded photos from glossy magazines or real-estate brochures, Arkley would outline the composition of exterior or interior, project the crisply defined drawing directly onto the canvas, and then paint the broader areas in flat colour. Later he would tape smaller cut-outs or stencils onto the canvas, suggesting textures and patterns which became integrated into the overall picture. The trick from there was to balance lightness with the oppressive density of the visual data. With their fuzzy, dreamlike quality and tonal after-effects, the airbrushed lines stylised the final look of the painting. The results were always exuberant: ‘I like the fact that the imagery looks like it’s printed; it looks like a reproduction of a painting, rather than a painting’.1
Arkley’s signature style was this combination of the literal with the psychedelic, the deadpan with the incandescent, turning real-estate into something like unreal-estate.
1. Quoted in Ashley Crawford & Ray Edgar, ‘Spray: the work of Howard Arkley’, Craftsman House, Sydney 1997, pp 14–15
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Jason Smith (Australia, b.1966) (Author), Howard Arkley, Melbourne, 2006, 21 (colour illus.).
Anthony Bond (England; Australia) (Commissioning Editor), Wayne Tunnicliffe (New Zealand; Australia) (Commissioning Editor), Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 2006, 210, 211 (colour illus.).
'Vital signs' by Judith White, pg.38-39, Look Apr 2000, Apr 2000, 38 (colour illus.).
'Home show in Venice' by Jane Hampson, pg. 12-13., Look Jul 1999, Jul 1999, 12 (colour illus.).
'Collections: International Modern and Contemporary Art' pg. 21, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 1999 1999, 1999, 21, 22 (colour illus.).
Jonathan Watkins (Editor), The 11th Biennale of Sydney: every day, Sydney, 1998. no catalogue numbers
11th Biennale of Sydney: every day, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 18 Sep 1998–08 Nov 1998.
Howard Arkley: The Retrospective, Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 17 Nov 2006–25 Feb 2007.
Howard Arkley: The Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 10 Mar 2007–06 May 2007.
Howard Arkley: The Retrospective, Queensland Art Gallery, 06 Jul 2007–16 Sep 2007.