The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Howard Arkley

Howard Arkley

Howard Arkley managed to fulfil his greatest ambition before his untimely death in 1999—that of forcing his public to recognise an Australian landscape other than the deserts of Sidney Nolan or the romanticised bush-scapes of Arthur Boyd: the suburbs. 'Who lives in the bush?'' he would ask. Arkley went on safari to Melbourne's Oakleigh, seizing the supposedly bland streetscapes and rendering them in vibrant day-glo colours.

No one else has come close to the sheer enthusiasm of Arkley for his pet subject. Barry Humphries has parodied it, Australian cinema has defended it with humour in The Castle (1997) and Muriel's Wedding (1994), and John Brack tackled it with dry irony. While others would shy away from the triple-fronted brick -veneer homes of the outer suburbs as if they were a dirty secret, or coat them with irony and humour, Arkley made suburbia his own. In this regard, Floriated residence (1994) becomes as iconic as Nolan's Ned Kelly or Boyd's Shoalhaven.

In an age where intellectual discourse infiltrates the visual arts on all levels, Arkley’s works are instantly recognisable—they are images that portray a part of the Australian psyche. They are the house down the road, the street we grew up in, the suburb where grandma lives. One of Arkley's favourite stories was of standing behind two middle-aged women looking at one of his paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria and hearing one of them say, 'Look, that's just like Dot's house!'

Howard Arkley could find any number of variations to depict the suburban home. Given the nature of the subject it was inevitable that the audience would assume a degree of irony. People 'thought I was sending it up', said Arkley of these works, 'AV Jennings. "Right, Howard, gotcha", but I wasn't sending anything up.'1

In Floriated residence, Arkley’s patterning is inside-out. As Chris McAuliffe has noted:

Arkley's painting techniques—his airbrush lines, stencilled patterns and psychedelic colours—add a significant twist to the subject ... the use of a floral wallpaper motif might hint at the interior of the house behind the façade. On the other hand, the mechanically produced floral motif might hint at the artificiality of our encounter with nature in the manicured gardens of the suburbs. Alternatively, the flat pattern invokes the history of geometric abstraction and its ultimate nightmare, being reduced to mere visual wallpaper.2

In this work Arkley made use of wallpaper stencils that he had used before to decorate his interiors. When his lounge-room chairs were decorated this way it was odd enough. To move outside and render the walls, windows, roof, garden, fence and sky this way was pure craziness that somehow works. One seems to accept this mad paint-job: it is instantly recognisable as a suburban home. Even when shown in the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, European and American audiences seemed to 'get it'. Arkley's ambition had moved beyond Oakleigh, beyond Melbourne, beyond Australia. His suburbia was worldwide.

Floriated residence refers back to Arkley’s earliest abstract works where pattern and colour were everything. Rather than the drab streetscapes encountered by suburbanites every day, Arkley's suburbia was a surreal and vibrant world.

- Ashley Crawford

  1. H Arkley, interview with the author, 1996.
  2. C McAuliffe, acquisition report, the Vizard Foundation Art Collection of the 1990s files, the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, 1994, n.p.

The Estate of Howard Arkley is represented in Australia by Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art, Melbourne.