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 But suburbia was not ignored by Howard Arkley, who would collect out-of-register colour pages from outdated magazines, or lovingly ponder different ways of rendering woodgrain surfaces or rug patterns with his reverberating airbrush.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
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
200.0 x 300.6 x 4.2 cm stretcher
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Contemporary Collection Benefactors 1998
Not on display
© The Estate of Howard Arkley, Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art
Shown in 3 exhibitions
11th Biennale of Sydney: every day, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 18 Sep 1998–08 Nov 1998
Howard Arkley: the retrospective:
Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 21 Sep 2013–08 Dec 2013
Referenced in 10 publications
George Alexander, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Popism and screen culture', pg.204-245, Sydney, 2006, 210, 211 (colour illus.).
Fiona Barbouttis, Foundation Newsletter #24, 'CCB comes of age', pg. 6-7, Sydney, Jul 2014, 6, 7 (colour illus.).
John Gregory, Carnival in suburbia: the art of Howard Arkley, 'Suburbia and its discontents', pg. 5-51, Port Melbourne, 2006, 18-19 (colour illus.), 20. fig.1.9
Jane Hampson, Look, 'Home show in Venice', pg. 12-13, Melbourne, Jul 1999, 12 (colour illus.).
Lisa-Marie Murphy, Look, 'Building the Gallery's collection', pg. 33-34, Sydney, Mar 2015, 34.
Jason Smith, Howard Arkley, Melbourne, 2006, 21 (colour illus.).
Daniel Thomas, Australia, 'Elizabethan post-colonial 1950-2013', pg. 226-288, London, 2013, 268 (colour illus.). cat.no. 185
Jonathan Watkins (Editor), The 11th Biennale of Sydney: every day, Sydney, 1998. no catalogue numbers
Judith White, Look, 'Vital signs', pg.38-39, Melbourne, Apr 2000, 38 (colour illus.).
Art Gallery of New South Wales annual report 1999, 'Collections: International Modern and Contemporary Art', pg. 21, Sydney, 1999, 21, 22 (colour illus.).