Howard Arkley was born on May 5, 1951 and grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills. His early passion for art was inspired by a family outing to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1967. Arkley, who had never been to an art gallery before, was so fascinated by Sidney Nolan’s surreal paintings of the Australian bush that the next day he copied images from the catalogue using his father’s household paint.
As a student, Arkley drew insatiably. Like Picasso, he covered every available surface – from paper napkins to people’s bodies – with doodles. He admired the work of Paul Klee who coined the idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. He was a draughtsman rather than a painter and even in his paintings the sprayed or painted calligraphic line was always prominent. Arkley believed the Surrealists were his first introduction to contemporary art, and their practice of automatic writing and the Exquisite Corpse game were an important early influence.
In 1969, after finishing school, Arkley embarked on a three year art course at Prahran College of Advanced Education. It was here that Fred Cress, an artist and lecturer, introduced him to the airbrush which became Arkley’s trademark. Often used commercially for shading effects, Arkley refined the use of the airbrush as a drawing tool which he manipulated expertly like a pen. The airbrushed line, particularly when used to outline his fields of bright colour, lent a smooth and polished look to his works which suggested printed, mass produced images. Arkley has explained that he learnt much of his art history from glossy prints in books rather than first hand sources, and it was these reproductions that he wanted to emulate.
In 1975, Arkley held his first exhibition at Tolarno Galleries, the galleries that were to represent him for the rest of his career. It was the start of a close relationship with the gallery’s director Georges Mora. Arkley’s earliest exhibited paintings are known as the ‘white’ paintings They are steeped in the traditions of modernist and abstract art. Soft meditative works influenced by Zen philosophy, they explore the power and symbolism of black and white with a softness and delicacy enhanced by the powdery spray of the airbrush. (Source, NGV)
Arkley 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.
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.
Howard Arkley, 1951–1999, transformed our vision of suburbia with his airbrush paintings of its houses. Pop aesthetics and a celebratory attitude contribute to their popular appeal. At once domestic and heroic in character, Arkley’s houses do not lack grandeur. Serious attention is given to the decorative, the fastidious and the display of pattern and material. Does Arkley’s work offer architecture a way into the suburbs?
Arkley’s houses offer nuanced and contradictory readings of suburbia through an ambivalent and lively relationship with the suburbs, a relationship that Arkley himself sustained through art practice and lived experience. The heavy black airbrush line characteristic of the house paintings leaves a thin haze of spray over the edges of the coloured areas it borders. This heightens their luminosity and produces the effect of heat haze, where, for instance, a roofline is set against a white cloud, or a yellow wall shimmers next to darker, shaded walls. Every element of house and garden is contained by this outline. Heat and glare, deserted streets with trimmed lawns; the suburbs are also boring and stifling, and the suburban home a symbol of middle-class values in a utopia of home ownership. The airbrush carries commercial rather than high art associations, and stencilling aids production of multiple images as pattern. There are parallels here with the suburban house, whose designs are repeatable, while each is different from its neighbour. Commerce, display, skill and repetition play a large part in their making.
Arkley used irony in his treatment of the suburbs, but, like painter John Brack before him, refrained from satirizing his subject matter. As with the work of Edmond and Corrigan, Arkley dignified the place where most Australians live.
'Art trams' were introduced by the then Ministry for the Arts in 1978, while Rupert Hamer was premier, as part of the Transporting Art project, which ceased in 1993. Now art trams are set to return under a partnership between Arts Victoria, Yarra Trams and the Melbourne Festival. Read more here.