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Howard Arkley


Punk, Primitive and Beyond

"I did ‘Primitive’ in a fun way that reflected my personal life much more… I thought it was interesting, but I had no idea that from that day on my work would go in a different direction."

Page 48, Spray, The work of Howard Arkley, Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar, 1997,

The dynamic and anarchic punk movement which swept though Melbourne in 1979 was fuelled by a desire to register the energy of the present, and brought with it new thoughts and ideas which pervaded all the arts. It was an exciting, creative time and Arkley was attracted to the break–free spirit and disdain for conformity advocated by Punk. Arkley and his artist friends Jenny Watson, John Nixon, Tony Clark and Peter Tyndall were frequent visitors to key punk music venues such as the Crystal Ballroom at St Kilda’s Seaview Hotel. There they enjoyed the aggressive and confrontational performances performed by bands like the Boys Next Door (who were later to become The Birthday Party lead by the singer/songwriter Nick Cave). The style of punk fashion which appropriated elements from disparate contexts, could be compared to Arkley’s humorous post modern paintings which irreverently combined high art, pop culture and the everyday.

The artist Tony Clark was one of Arkley’s closest friends, and in 1981 he invited him to contribute to an exhibition at Melbourne’s Prahran College where Clark was a teacher. Arkley had been heavily involved in preparing for an exhibition at Tolarno Galleries and didn’t embark on the work, a large scale drawing, until twenty-four hours before the work was expected. Owing to this time restraint, he was forced to work frenetically throughout the night, surrounded by a collection of disparate people ranging from musicians to a taxi driver, who shouted instructions to him as he worked. The manic atmosphere unleashed in him a continuous stream of almost automatic doodling inspired by his notebooks, and actual events happening around him like the ringing of a telephone. A nude woman with a crucifix and pearls, a camel, distorted faces and a mad axeman are among the imagery which meander across this monumental work made from individual pieces of paper totalling 1.5 by 5.6 metres The graphic black line of the airbrush suggests the decorative qualities of graffiti and tattooing whilst also evoking a look of comic strips and cartoons. Arkley’s friends have described Primitive as his true punk picture. Arkley himself was acutely aware that it had encouraged him to take risks, and had liberated him from the formalised structure he usually applied in his paintings.

The work coined its name from a song by a punk band called The Cramps and evokes the rawness and primal force associated with ‘uncivilized’ cultures. Arkley has said that the process of making Primitive taught him the importance of gathering inspiration, leading to an understanding that every subject is possible and every source material is useful. He saw the work as ephemeral and following the exhibition left individual sheets scattered around his studio. These have now been reassembled and restored (see interview with the conservator on this site).

Arkley re–configured parts of this image to make Primitive Gold, 1982, and Primitive Silver, 1982, both of which were shown in a ground breaking exhibition called Popism, curated by Paul Taylor, and held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1982. Tattooed Head, 1983, which was developed by doodling over images of heads in magazines, can also be seen as a derivation of Primitive. It was one of a series of images focusing on body parts such as hands, feet and a penis. The free flowing lines in these images reference African tribal body art and the urban tribalism of tattooing seen in punk culture. Primitive heralded an important move from abstraction to figuration, and from this time onwards Arkley’s work oscillated between, or combined these approaches.

At the same time, Arkley began increasingly to compose with colour and broadened his oeuvre to include portraits, studies of succulents and urban imagery such as skyscrapers and factories.
Zappo Head, 1986, often regarded as one of Arkley’s signature images, can be interpreted as a self–portrait. Resembling a primitive mask, it pulsates with psychedelic colours, and was made by folding a drawing in half to obtain symmetry. The flat, graphic faces of the plastic inflatable toys which Arkley collected were an influence on this work. Arkley himself saw this image as sinister and menacing, perhaps as it alluded to the dark side of his drug use.

In 1990, Arkley returned to a wider more societal investigation of the portrait theme in his exhibition at Tolarno Galleries, The Head Show which Arkley described as being:

"…about wearing masks and hiding identities. All of these works are self–portraits... Every image in the show is loaded up with ideas of the face in the mass media: the talking head on the TV, the cover girl, the face of the month. And yet all these faces ever are is masks."

Virginia Trioli, "Head Show is a Myth You Can Take at Face Value". The Age, October 26, 1990.

High Rise St Kilda
, 1986, took its source from a skyscraper rendering found in a book on computer art, and reflects Arkley’s fascination with the flat, shiny surfaces of high–rise architecture. By contrast, Shadow factory, 1988 has a distinctly industrial and uneasy feel inspired by a Peter Carey short story in which people are drawn to shadows with nightmarish connotations. In Arkley’s final decade he experimented with replacing the black sprayed line with various colours, including the soft grey used in some of his portraits and freeway pictures. He also developed more sophisticated shading and stencilling techniques in order to create increasingly complex patterning.


NGV: Art like never before