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