(ARCHIVE COPY 2007)
Australian Artist Howard Arkley is the subject of a new book by author Dr John Gregory and a major retrospective exhibition
currently at the AGNSW celebrating his unique brand
of pop art - from epic Day-Glo iconography to trippy
expeditions into the mundane wonderland of suburban
bliss. DRUM's Paul Andrew speaks to author of 'Carnival in Suburbia' Dr John Gregory and Curator Jason Smith.
According to exhibition curator Jason Smith, it was
Arkley’s great love for popular culture and mass media, that formed the prima materia for his life's work. Everything from the vibrant loud colourful and narcotic fuelled club scene, to eighties post punk celebrities like The Cramps or Nick Cave, to television or indie film culture.
“If these were the signs, materials, forces and
phenomena that conditioned us, that shaped our
world”, urges Smith, “then I think Howard's response
was - 'ok, I'll re-condition things myself and celebrate,
subvert and reassess.” And Arkley’s tool of choice, the
One of Arkley’s artistic influences was US artist and activist Keith Haring(May 4, 1958 – February 16, 1990), who visited Australia in 1984, painted wall murals in Collingwood and clearly made an impression on Arkely's early work.
Unlike Haring who looked into the spectrum of 1980's street culture Arkley was enchanted by Middle Australia, by suburbia, in particualr suburban architecture, this provided him some of the richest source material.
“Throughout the 1980s and 1990s [Arkley] cast the suburban home
in a range of recognisable styles but luridly coloured
decorative schemes. His suburban exteriors focus
attention on suburbia as the contemporary landscape
and the habitat of most of the Australian population. He
sought neither to satirise nor denigrate suburbia, but to
reflect its complexity and understood that behind the
homely, ordered façade often lurked a dark side to the
domestic. Arkley’s homes are alternatively nostalgic,
celebratory subversive and brooding.”
One work, his Fabricated Rooms, which he made
for the 1999 Venice Biennale, says Smith, offered a
particularly Australian vision of the contemporary
world, but obviously had an international reach.
“Howard's Venice work was hailed for its conception,
execution and ambition. He was a very well read
artist and understood, wrote and talked about his
art-historical ancestors, so the history of modernism
and transitions between minimalism, pluralism,
modernism and postmodernism were factors in his
thinking and his work of course - he created a very
distinct visual language.”
Smith has put together an exhaustive survey
encapsulating both the artist’s depth and breadth of
vision as well evoking his inspirational talent.
While many artists in the 1980s and 1990s were focusing
on the minimal or the melancholic, Arkley chose colour
at its most vibrant.
"He was an excellent and essential antidote to Melbourne’s obsession with black. Many artists who were either peers or students recall Howard's generosity of spirit.
Sadly Arkley died from a heroine dose upon returning
to Australia from Venice in 1999. But after Howard died, a
huge amount of his studio material came to light."
“Making sense of all that, and integrating the new
insights into his work that resulted, was a very strong
motive”, explains author art historian Dr John Gregory
about the motivation behind researching and writing
his paean to Arkley - Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of
Howard Arkley. “His insights about suburbia and its
cultural meanings still dominate in most people’s view
of his life’s work. And yes, I do believe that’s a very
significant aspect of his work, but, who knows, in the
future he may be seen as just as significant for the links
between his art and music or popular culture. I do think
he will continue to be seen as a significant artist of his
Gregory first met Howard in 1990, and wrote the book as
a way of acknowledging how much he deeply considered concepts and ideas. “I also wanted to complicate
the view proposed by several writers and by Arkley
himself, that his suburban houses are ‘just like ours’
– by stressing their plainly artistic character, their use
of graphic line and colour, and so on.
"I don’t disagree with the idea that the familiarity of his suburban imagery is a key part of their appeal, but I also wanted
to get people to think a but more deeply about exactly
how those images look. And I was also interested in
breaking down the notion of his work as some sort of
direct reflection of his drug taking.”
"Punk was a key influence in the late ’70s/early ’80s
especially. Influences included usual suspects like
Warhol but also other US artists like Ed Ruscha. And he
was always looking at design magazines like Domus,
and books on modern furniture - Memphis and so on.
And as for his drug use – it is actually one of the issues
often over-emphasized in discussion of Arkley."
“Obviously", asserts Gregory, "the altered states Arkley experienced were clearly influential on some of his works, such as the images of cacti, or his Zappo Heads, but the fascinating thing there is how organized and precise his art always was. An enduring memory of mine is watching Howard transform himself
from the rather all-over-the-place character he seemed
in everyday life, into an incredibly meticulous craftsman
when he had the air-brush in his hand."
INTERVIEW with Jason Smith, Curator
PA: Australian art history has a big handful of artists who paint suburbia(Jeffrey Smart is well-known figure), other well-known artists representing suburbia?
JS: Well, for a start, all artists have a different take on suburbia.Historical figures include Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, Brett Whitelely (interiors particularly)and Jenny Watson.
What distinguishes Arkley's works are their geometry, balance of abstraction against representation, and his totally idiosyncratic colour and patterning.
PA: Tell me of Arkley's early career?
JS: Arkley held his first exhibition, White Paintings, in 1975 at Tolarno Galleries, established in St Kilda by Georges Mora. Several of the works in this retrospective were part of that first exhibition: A piece called Nerve; Operations, notch, trim; Seltsamer and Inventory.
In this early phase of his career Arkley drew on the histories and traditions of twentieth century modernism, minimal and abstract art to develop a personal and distinct visual language.
Arkley's notebooks and sketchbooks of this period are filled with
notational experiments and thumbnail drawings in which he develops the compositional precision of the large scale paintings. The paintings reveal his preoccupations with rigid or fluid linearity, uniformity, solidity, and all-over sprayed grounds; thinness and thickness of line; thegraphic and emotive distinctions between freehand or ruled lines; thehardness of blacks, greys and silver; density and lightness, and the
graduation of tone from black to white; and the field of light between black and white.
From around 1979 Arkley's painting entered a new and radical phase ofcolour. Ornamentation and abstraction merged with Arkley's continuing interests in patterning, mathematical order, furnishing fabrics, architecture, the modernist grid and the wider Australian feminist movement in works like Ornamentic, Science and Vortex recalling as they do the geometry of flywire doors, coded formulae and the patterning of Amish quilts. Feminism and its revaluing of subjects and practices relegated
derisively to the 'decorative' or 'domestic' corresponded with Arkley's developing interests in the inherent aesthetic value of decorative scheme and the highly individual and arbitrary nature of taste.
PA: His major themes?
JS: His major themes are the domestic, suburbia,
the abstract world.
PA: Street Art influences?
JS: Arkley used his tool of choice - the airbrush - from the time he was a student. There are fascinating convergences in time and subject matter between Arkley and the American Keith Haring for instance (though Haring didn't use the airbrush).
PA: Arkley transmuted the humdrum mundane nature of domesticity and conjured profoundly magical vibrant icons. Was this due a great love/great dream for Australian suburbia or a mocking ironic twist?
JS: The architecture of the suburbs provided some of the richest source material for Howard Arkley's art. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Arkley cast the suburban home in a range of recognisable styles but luridly coloured decorative schemes. Arkley's suburban exteriors focus attention on suburbia as the contemporary landscape and the habitat of most of the Australian population. Arkley sought neither to satirise nor denigrate suburbia, but to reflect its complexity. He understood that behind the homely, ordered façade often lurked a dark side to the domestic. His
homes are alternatively nostalgic, celebratory subversive and brooding.
PA: What do you feel about Arkley's link/references
to pop art (Popism?) in Australia and overseas?
JS: Popular culture and mass media - in all their myriad forms - was THE source material for Arkley. If these were the signs, materials, forces and phenomena that conditioned us, that shaped outr world, then I think Howard's response was - 'ok, I'll RE-CONDITION things myself and celebrate, subvert and reassess'. My speculative quote, not his.
PA: When Arkleys work was gathering momentum in the eighties and nineties, there were a handful of artists working with colourful media or popculture references (Juan Davila for example) who attracted some degree of notoriety. There seemed to be a larger number of Melbourne artists working with muted monotones melancholy, black and minimalism. What do you feel?
JS: Yes, he was an excellent and essential antidote to Melbourne 'black'.
PA: What do you thinks Arkley's personal philosophy was regarding the world in the midst of great social and cultural change?
JS: That art made us more complex, productive human beings and that it could enable change beyond the art world.
PA: Is Melbourne a quintessential element to Arkley's work or is it a more universal insight into Australian suburban experiences?
PA: Arkley's works ebb and flow between abstraction and realism ?
JS: Howard was a very well read artist and understood, wrote and
talked about his art-historical ancestors, so the history of modernism and transitions between minimalism, pluralism, modernism and postmodernism were factors in his thinking and work of course. But he sought for himself a distinct visual language.
PA: Can you cite any of his student's, proteges or peers who were inpsired by Arkley's art career?
JS: Many artists who were either peers or students recall Howard's generosity of spirit and his unwavering encouragement of his practice. His closest peers, at various times, were John Nixon, Jenny Watson, Tony Clark, Peter Tyndall, Juan Davila, Elizabeth Gower, Callum Morton. His students include Kathy Temin, Anne-Marie May, Andrew Macdonald.
WHO: Howard Arkley
WHAT: Howard Arkley
WHEN & WHERE: Until Sunday 6 May 2007, Art Gallery
of NSW, Domain
First Published Drum Media, NSW 20 March 2007