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Howard Arkley


Icon: Print Version

Suburbia comes alive: Exteriors and Interiors

"I believe that Howard sees the suburbs as a landscape. One of the most interesting memories I have of Howard was him telling me he was moving to Oakleigh and he said to me, "yesterday I went to the milk bar and I was totally blown away by all the garage doors." He was intoxicated by the garage doors, and he saw enough there to be the source of art, Cezanne looked at mountains, van Gogh saw flowers, but Howard had an eye-full of garage doors!
He was absolutely engrossed by a type of banal iconography. He could see it and felt confident that he could dignify it and bring a lustre and honour to it.
Every community or society has artists, and Howard is our artist."

Peter Corrigan, Melbourne based architect
Page 89 – Spray, The work of Howard Arkley, Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar, 1997

In 1983, Arkley painted Suburban Interior, (where real wallpaper had been used as a background for black airbrushed outlines), and Suburban Exterior. At this point they were only part of his extensive oeuvre which was moving increasingly towards figuration and bold use of colour.

By 1988 however, every painting in his annual show at Tolarno Galleries was inspired by suburban themes, which heralded a professional breakthrough and commercial success. By drawing attention to the highly individual decorative details of architecture in suburbia, an area often perceived as dull and drab, he was working towards his ambition revealed in an interview:

"What I would actually like to do is the equivalent to when you’re driving along in the country and you look at the landscape and you say, ‘Oh there’s a Fred Williams.’ You change the way people see it. And you make people look at it…"
Page 89 Spray, Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar, 1997 (Unpublished interview with the authors)

However, his paintings of generic houses were far more than explorations of the suburban vernacular – he had discovered their potential as a vehicle for his abstract compositions exploring colour, pattern, shape and line. Arkley, like the French Modernist artist Fernand Leger, looked for the spectacle in the everyday, and in his hands, the humble home was repeatedly reinvented as a vivid psychedelic Pop image that seduces the eyes in the same way as luminous advertising. Arkley often used real estate drawings or photographs as a starting point for his basic compositions, but they were never intended to be portraits of specific houses. They were often reworked in combinations that varied or elaborated the colour, pattern or placement of trees and architectural elements.

Images: i) Albrecht Durer, Samson Rending Lion, ii) Fernand Leger, Landscapte

Albrecht Dürer
German 1471–1528
Samson Rending the Lion c.1497-98
38.2 x 27.8 cm (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1956
Ff101812 (A00344)

Fernand Léger
French 1881–1955
Landscape 1952
gouache and watercolour
64.0 x 50.1 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1971
© Fernand Léger/ADAGP. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
Ff102137 (A00449)

Arkley’s use of a black outline, influenced by both the German printmaker Albrecht Durer and Fernand Leger, has a dual purpose. As an artistic device it locks the colours and textures into the composition, yet it also emphasises the neatness of suburbia where proud houseowners straighten curtains and manicure their lawns. The misty aura surrounding the line evokes the shimmering haze of a stifling day when people retire to the cool and relative gloom of their loungerooms to escape the heat, reminding us of the airless and claustrophobic quality of the suburbs.

It has been suggested that Arkley’s house paintings, which evoke an unnatural stillness and rarely contain people, can appear vacant and soulless. They could be interpreted as exploring the less positive aspects of suburban life – suggesting perhaps a sense of alienation, violence behind closed doors and experiences dulled by the monotony of everyday life.

Arkley moved to the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh in 1991 so that he could experience at first hand the area from which he drew most of his inspiration. He was ambivalent about suburbia, drawn to its artistic potential and yet, as a city dweller for most of his adult life, aware of the sense of alienation and lack of intellectual stimulus often associated with suburban life.

"Ordinary houses are full of pattern. You go into a house, there’s no art … but it’s filled with a kind of second degree imagery – the patterning around the fireplace, on the curtains, in the carpet; and the different bricks on the different houses, and the pattern between the gutter, the nature-strip, the footpath, then you have the fence, then you have the lawn, the house, the tiles, then you have the beautiful sky… and I missed the bushes in between…it’s rich."

Howard Arkley Ref 11 – page 9, Carnival in Suburbia, The Art of Howard Arkley, John Gregory, 2006

Dating back to his student days, Arkley had been interested in the history of modern architecture and interior design. In Ultrakleen, the smooth planes of primary colour and angular lines reference the early twentieth century Dutch avant-garde movement known as de Stijl. Locally, he was fascinated by the way suburban domestic interiors were full of contrasting patterns, and became increasingly interested in taking on the role of home decorator in his paintings and floor sculptures. He took inspiration from his extensive collection of magazines specialising in home decoration, international architecture and design, including the Italian magazine Domus. Many of his 1990s interior paintings and installations were developed from the book, The Instant Decorator by Frances Joslin Gold.

Image: Interiors, The Complete Home Decorator

The Bedroom – A Relaxing Oasis
The Complete Home-Decorator, page 206–207
by Catharine Klock, illustrated by Sylvia Wiren,
published by Cadillac Publishing, 1946

Mary Gilliat’s Mix and Match Decorating Book inspired the title of his Mix n Match exhibition at Tolarno Galleries in 1992. In his painted interiors of the early 1990s, Arkley appeared to be flouting the concept of ‘good taste’, deliberately using clashing, raucous hues and mismatching patterns in his compositions.

Fabricated Rooms, 1997 – 1999, a monumental work which when exhibited wrapped itself around several walls, was more subtle and refined than his earlier interior paintings. The colours were softer and resembled those of decorator colours found on charts in local hardware stores. The work exuded a sense of the surreal high gloss advertising used in a retail outlet, where the homeowner is presented with options to choose from when designing a room setting.


NGV: Art like never before