Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Watson

Howard Arkley, The Bay Win­dow (1988). Col­lec­tion Tar­raWarra Mu­seum of Art, Healesville, Vic­to­ria. Gift of Eva Be­sen AO and Marc Be­sen AO. Do­nated through the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s Cul­tural Gifts Pro­gram, 2008. On dis­play un­til Fe­bru­ary 28. In 1969, in his first year of art school, Howard Arkley first saw the work­ing tool that would for­ever in­flu­ence him: the air­brush. Straight­away he thought the air­brush was re­mark­able be­cause it meant he could make marks with­out ac­tu­ally touch­ing the can­vas.

Arkley was never a “phys­i­cal painter”. “I was never go­ing to be a de Koon­ing or a John Olsen,” he said in an ABC in­ter­view shortly be­fore his death in 1999. “I was never go­ing to love paint and wal­low around in it. I had the idea that I al­ways wanted to make the im­age with­out hav­ing to get my hands dirty. A lot of artists would find this evil.”

Arkley, who was born in Mel­bourne in 1951, be­came in­ter­ested in art as a teenager when he first saw the work of Sid­ney Nolan at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. Two years later he en­rolled in art school. His ca­reer be­gan in the early 1970s with a se­ries of min­i­mal­ist ab­strac­tions, but he is best known for his de­pic­tions of the sub­ur­ban home. In 1999 he rep­re­sented Aus­tralia at the 48th Venice Bi­en­nale. Soon af­ter his re­turn to Mel­bourne from Venice, he died of a heroin over­dose.

In the same way that an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion had ex­plored ru­ral and out­back land­scapes, Arkley ex­plored the sub­urbs. His in­ter­est was sparked in the 80s af­ter sev­eral months study­ing in Paris where he took hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs of art nou­veau and art deco door­ways. Back in Mel­bourne, he vis­ited his mother’s house and had a rev­e­la­tion — he saw the fly­wire se­cu­rity door. Af­ter this he pho­tographed ev­ery fly­wire door in his mother’s street.

For Arkley, the sub­urbs were his child­hood, his life. For in­spi­ra­tion, he turned to glossy home dec­o­ra­tor mag­a­zines and real es­tate brochures. He used the air­brush and bold sat­u­rated colours to em­pha­sise the pat­terns, lines and tex­tures of path­ways, doors, lawns, garage doors, brick­work and car­pets.

A typ­i­cal ex­am­ple is The Bay Win­dow with its dis­tinc­tive black air­brushed out­lines and ar­ray of shapes and pat­terns. The paint­ing is in the col­lec­tion of the Tar­raWarra Mu­seum of Art, Healesville, Vic­to­ria, and is on dis­play as part of an ex­hi­bi­tion, Howard Arkley (and friends …), fea­tur­ing more than 60 of his works from 1974 un­til 1999.

The di­rec­tor of the mu­seum, Vic­to­ria Lynn, says Arkley’s vi­sion was a unique com­bi­na­tion of high art, pop cul­ture and mid­dle-class home interiors. She adds it has been sug­gested Arkley’s houses are like a mask, con­ceal­ing the more trou­bling events within.

Lynn says he pur­sued a paint­ing prac­tice that dis­tilled as­pects of our ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment into a pre­cise com­po­si­tion of lines and colours.

“Draw­ing was key for Arkley and The Bay Win­dow shows his char­ac­ter­is­tic air­brushed lines out­lin­ing the fa­cade of a house. He found pat­terns in ev­ery­thing.”

Syn­thetic poly­mer paint on can­vas; 161cm x 199.7cm

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