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Howard Arkley


Icon: Print Version

Ornamentation and Abstraction

"The paintings are meant to be thought provoking – it's a matter of making other people think, to make them reflect and consider and make them find out about things. 'Art' dies when it relies on a value judgement inherent in the works."
Howard Arkley

Page 196 – Not Just A Suburban Boy, Edwina Preston, 2002

Image: Doors in Paris

Paris: 9 Rue Vavin: door (Art Deco)

Jules Lavirotte, architect
French 1864–1924
Paris: 3 Square Rapp: door (Art Nouveau, 1899-1900)

Arkley was awarded the Alliance France Art Fellowship in 1976 which allowed him to spend 12 months travelling Europe and the U.S. with his first wife and fellow artist Elizabeth Gower.

The art galleries and cultural elements viewed on his travels provided him with a stimulating period of art education, and a wealth of opportunities to gather new source material. Preferring to see as much as possible rather than isolate himself in a studio, he produced art on the run, 'hotel art' as he called it, doodling and recording his impressions on what was closest to hand, such as pages in a book or bar coasters. On his return to Australia, he became acutely aware of his own cultural environment, convincing him that the Australian vernacular was a significant subject, and one which he came to pursue for the rest of his career.

An incident shortly after his return brought this idea sharply into focus. Whilst waiting for his mother to answer her doorbell, he became aware of the ornate pattern on her fly wire door. He was reminded of the hundreds of photographs of Art Nouveau and Art Deco doors he had taken in Paris. This flash of insight prompted him to take photographs of a whole street of decorative flywire doors, which were to inspire many of his future paintings including the late work, Outside- Inside-Out, 1995.

Image: Flywire Screens from Spray, the work of Howard Arkley

Flywire screens (part of an ongoing series)

Collection of the artist’s estate
Spray, The Work of Howard Arkley, page 26
by Ashley Crawford & Ray Edgar, published by Craftsman House Fine Art Publishing, 1997

In the late 1970s Arkley used door-shaped panels as a vehicle for his abstract paintings. These were informed by the patterning on 1950s cheap, mass produced laminex and furnishing fabrics, whose textile designers had themselves appropriated the look of modernist artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Miro. (These were the very designs Arkley had been surrounded by as a child in the suburbs.)

Arkley had now established a radical new direction in his work which added everyday elements to the pureness of abstraction. As Pop Art had done before, he challenged the traditional notion that art and décor were incompatible by combining these elements - he had found a way to make abstract art more accessible to the public.

Arkley continued his exploration of ornamentation and abstraction by drawing on a wide range of influences from mathematics to feminism. Ornamentic, 1981 for example subtly explores the geometry and symmetry of decorative flywire doors, while Vortex, 1981, merges dazzling colours with traditional Amish quilt designs that vibrate in a shimmering haze reminiscent of Op Art.

During this period Arkley developed the motif of gridded dots, which suggested computer printouts of the 1950s, Pianola rolls, and the pulsating light bulbs of discos. In order to create these iridescent grids, Arkley had to overspray with the airbrush on each dot, a precise and technically demanding process which demonstrated his rigorous and highly controlled approach to his work.

In 1980, the Victorian Ministry for the Arts commissioned sixteen artists to paint a tram, so exposing their work to a wider audience. Arkley, who worked on Tram Number 384 at Preston Depot, again combined disparate elements by utilising the gridded dots in a configuration that resembled the decorative nature of embroidery.

This was followed in 1980 – 1981 by Muzak Mural Chair Tableau, an installation which consisted of two tall panels painted with a precise mathematical grid pulsating with vibrantly coloured dots. They formed the background for 4 three-dimensional stylized chairs whose form was suggested by the decorative motifs used to paint them. In this work, Arkley set up an intriguing confrontation that juxtaposes art history, through the ideals of de Stijl and the Bauhaus, with everyday suburban life



NGV: Art like never before