Logo: National Gallery of VictoriaHeader: Education Resource

Howard Arkley


Icon: Print Version

Arkley’s Legacy

Image: Photography of Howard Arkley
Howard Arkley at his studio, 1991 with some of his source material
from Carnival in Suburbia, The Art of Howard Arkley
by John Gregory published by Cambridge University Press, 2006

Howard Arkley emerged in the 1970s as one of a group of vibrant young ‘New Wave’ artists from Prahran CAE who absorbed the prevailing influences of Post–modernism with its emphasis on ‘second–hand sources’, Feminism with its focus on pattern–making and relevance to self, and the local ‘punk’ fashion and music scene. He was energetic and compelling with a personal style that set him apart, and there was no mistaking his commitment and drive as an artist.

Howard’s first solo exhibition in 1975 of black and white abstractions at Tolarno Galleries in Fitzroy Street St Kilda, signalled that he was an artist of significance. Already he had claimed his metier with a spray–gun technique that enabled him to explore delicate patterns with a facility and precision that increasingly came to be recognised as his own vernacular. In this he changed the way in which we too, observe the world around us, especially through his paintings of houses, factories and freeways. In exploring the optical effects and geometric elements of everyday suburban existence – computer dots, deco–laminex, screen–wire doors, lino patterns, and other seemingly mundane elements, Howard addressed the reality of living in the suburbs – the inherent beauty that exists there, alongside the boredom and isolation.

Howard Arkley’s personal vision unfolded universal meanings, and in an exhibiting career that spanned only some twenty–four years, he claimed his place boldly as one of Australia’s great artists.

Frances Lindsay
Deputy Director (Australian Art)
National Gallery of Victoria

It is tempting to romanticize the artist Howard Arkley. At the end, he simply drew the short straw. The companion I remember and still miss was a thin shifty figure with a chancer’s charm. He wore cowboy boots and tight fitting raffish suits and he possessed a man’s vices (as they used to say). In the contemporary landscape with it’s sociological perspective, he would have been described as a deviant figure; an artist who had sprung from the ‘disadvantaged’ classes. This would probably have pleased him as he believed his work was at odds with the snobbery and cant of so many of the art world’s highfliers. He found his medium early (this was a painter who felt more comfortable holding a spray gun) and who could deny his harsh mastery of it?

The Australian suburbs that he painted were his milieu and his gift to us. He said once that he had to move on from them for the sake of his art so he started painting freeways and traffic sections, those exits out of his world. We all knew he was a significant Melbourne artist and he seemed to me to be a decent human being who knew his own worth.

I particularly miss the way Howard would suddenly break out laughing and then say, just as suddenly, with great politeness, "What about a drink?"

Peter Corrigan
Adjunct Professor of Architectural Design at RMIT, Melbourne
Practising architect with Edmond & Corrigan Pty. Ltd, Melbourne

If I had to find one word to describe Howard, it would be ‘intense’. Everything about Howard was intense. He’d look at you intensely, question everything you said, rub his brow intensely then encourage you unconditionally. He was intensely focused on his Art. His sustained practice and substantial body of work attests to that. He worked hard. He rarely sat still. He was always building something, making something, measuring, drawing, masking, painting, spraying. When I met him he made all his own stretchers by hand – mitring, planing, bevelling, chiselling, sanding, stretching. Then priming, sanding, priming, sanding and priming again. It was intense. He’d run his hand over the entire canvas, searching intensely for any hair or miniscule blemish in the weave to meticulously pluck off with tweezers. "Its all about the surface", he would say. And he was right, the airbrush would glide over the surface like it was silk. He had such control of the airbrush; it was like the sixth finger on his hand. His concentration was intense. One can only marvel at his alibility to sustain it. If he wasn’t spraying, he was drawing and doodling on everything – envelopes, newspapers, book covers, tablecloths. He wrote poems too, letters, notes on Art and stories. He had a wild imagination. His conversations were intense. Whatever the subject, he’d have an opinion on it. And his most passionate subject was Art – his Art, your Art, everyone’s Art, the Art world, Art politics, good Art, bad Art. He’d thought about it all. It was Art for breakfast and Art for dinner. His intensity drove you nuts sometimes but it fuelled him and the people around him to achieve their vision. I miss his passion for Art, his genuine smile, his enthusiasm but most of all his intensity.

Elizabeth Gower
Practising artist and lecturer in painting,
Victorian College of The Arts, Melbourne.

Howard Arkley transformed our vision of suburbia – much as Fred Williams’ scrubby marks and long horizon lines made us see the Australian landscape afresh. However, as Arkley often emphasized, the vast majority of contemporary Australians live in the ‘burbs, not the bush. In focussing on the suburb–scape and its rituals, his vividly–coloured, graphic paintings give a new take to a theme often addressed – but frequently in superior, even sarcastic tones – by comedians, writers and other artists. Arkley’s wiry, air–brushed line, playful patterning and diverse array of visual quotations (drawn from home improvement magazines, Italian design, comic–books, tattooing, etc.), exemplify late 20th–century Australian "post–modernism", but with a celebratory energy not always apparent in the work of his contemporaries. A larger–than–life figure, Arkley was a widely–admired teacher and mentor, who has influenced many younger Australian artists, including Constanze Zikos and Callum Morton.

John Gregory
Writer and Senior Lecturer,
Theory of Art and Design,
Monash University, Melbourne

It is rare and wonderful when an artist actually achieves one of the utopian aspirations of modernist art – to change the way that we see the world in which we live. Howard Arkley’s work succeeded in this, and continues to test the limits of our perception.

Alongside artist John Brack, comedian Barry Humphries, and architect and critic Robin Boyd, Arkley’s delirious day–glo paintings described the features of Australian suburbia in glorious, excessive detail. His heightened, optical aesthetic made us look at ourselves more self–consciously – and made us aware of ourselves in the act of looking.

Arkley’s work signalled the passage from the bush back to the suburbs in Australian art. He also drew attention to that which had been repressed in Australian art and culture, the ordinary and outcast. His focus upon suburban pop– and multi–culture, and his collaborations with his friend and colleague Juan Davila, engendered a complex vein of hybridity and multiculturalism in Australian art, which continues in the work of Constanze Zikos, Jon Campbell, Destiny Deacon and Raafat Ishak, among others.

If his signature paintings of houses, factories, freeways and nightlife were valued for their psycho–sociological insights, they are equally compelling for their daring abstraction and graphic exploration, executed in a unique suburban–dream–like adrenalin rush.

Max Delany Director,
Monash University Museum of Art,

NGV: Art like never before