Abstract Australis
Abstract Australis
Brighton, Victoria 3186 Australia
Ph: 0407 501 808
ABN: 66 086 690 771

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Howard ARKLEY (b.1951; d.1999)

Photo of ArtistHoward Arkley was born on 5th May 1951 in Melbourne. He attended Surrey Hills Primary School and Box Hill Technical School. In 1966, Arkley saw the exhibition of Sydney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was then that he realised it was possible to be a professional artist and began to paint. * He was also influenced by the avant-garde works exhibited at the inaugural The Field exhibition in 1968 at the National Gallery of Victoria’s new premises.

From 1969 to 1972, Arkley studied painting at the Prahran College of Advanced Education, graduating with a Diploma of Art & Design (Painting). He went on to attend Melbourne State College and obtained a Diploma of Education in 1973. * In the 1970s he lived in Chapel St, Prahran and married Elizabeth Gower in 1973.

In 1976, Arkley was awarded the Alliance Française Art Fellowship and spent the following twelve months travelling with Elizabeth Gower in Europe and the United States. Whilst in Paris, he began photographing Art Nouveau and Art Deco doorways which, on his return to Melbourne, lead to his interest in the designs and patterns of fly–screens and suburban gates. *

From 1980 to 1985, Arkley taught the Tertiary Orientation Program at Prahran College of Advanced Education.

Having separated from Elizabeth Gower, he met and had a relationship with Lyn Oliver in the early 1980s. In 1987, he married his second wife, Christine Johnson. * Across his 30-year career, Arkley was dedicated, rigorous, and, if anything, too critical of his own work. His early yearning for success, combined with marital problems, saw him seek solace in drugs, although he was a much-loved larrikin, liked by his peers. It all peaked in 1999 when he represented Australia at the 48th Venice Biennale, travelled to London to plan an album cover for rock singer Nick Cave, and then flew to Los Angeles for a sell-out show of his paintings. He married his long-time love, Alison Burton, in Las Vegas, and returned home triumphant, to be at last celebrated by the art world in his own country. Two weeks later, he was dead at 48, tragically passing away from a drug overdose, leaving family, friends, critics and admirers to mourn a great talent unfulfilled.

Arkley’s first solo exhibition, White Paintings, was held at Tolarno Galleries in St Kilda, Melbourne in April 1975. In 1980, Arkley was commissioned to paint a tram for the Victorian Ministry of the Arts, Tram 384. * In 1981, his Muzak Mural Installation went through several variations before reaching its definitive form at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne.** The work was later acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. He also exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in the exhibition Popism curated by Paul Taylor, amongst friends Jenny Watson and Juan Davila, in 1982. From then, Arkley held many more solo and group exhibitions throughout Australia.

Monash University held a retrospective of Arkley’s work in 1991. The 1997 exhibition, Fabricated Rooms, at the Art Gallery of NSW coincided with Ashley Crawford’s book about Arkley’s work, Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley (a revised edition with Ray Edgar was published in 2001). Arkley then represented Australia with The Home Show at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 which brought him world-wide acclaim. Another retrospective of his work was held after his death from 2006 to 2007 at the National Gallery of Victoria “which assessed and celebrated Arkley’s singular contribution to the history of twentieth century Australian art”. * This exhibition included the painting Zappo Head. A biography of Arkley by Melbourne writer and musician Edwina Preston, Howard Arkley: Not Just A Suburban Boy, was published in 2002 and a play based on the life and art of Arkley was staged as part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Howard Arkley’s principal theme is unique and instantly recognizable – a celebration of hometown Melbourne suburbia; particularly, its post-war, triple-fronted, brick veneer homes with his distinctive air-brush style and bright fluorescent colours.

He perfected the art of making the commonplace look remarkable, such as the stark lines of freeways, and taking us inside the childhood homes of those, like him, who grew up in the 1950s. His big, vibrant paintings, meticulously finished with an incandescent, almost psychedelic style, were justifiably compared to the likes of Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein & Caulfield.

The suburban pictures never feature a single, living soul, yet the garish colours suggest that this is not a bad thing; it’s just the way it is. In a 1999 interview at the Venice Biennale, where The Home Show, his paintings of Australian houses and their interiors, met with acclaim, Arkley reasoned that as the suburbs were where 95% of his fellow citizens lived: “Australians get my work straight away; they understand what’s being said and they understand they’re not being put down, it’s not satirical.” ***

Arkley had worked with a variety of mediums across the years, achieving moderate success. But his career took off with the airbrush, which he long experimented with and perfected, giving his paintings an almost surreal feel. Most of his early works were abstract, often depicting patterns or lines created with the airbrush and mainly in black and white. A turning point in Arkley’s career was in 1981 when he created Primitive, a mural, which caught the attention of the public to his potential.

It was only later on that he began experimenting with explosively colourful works exploring a mix of imagery including masks, tattoos, cacti and succulents. According to the art historian Chris McAuliffe, Arkley’s style changes can be linked to his tastes in music: the early, stripped-back work coincided with an interest in progressive jazz before he discovered punk in New York: “With punk came energy, graffiti-like gestures, he ramped up the colour. He wanted to see how much energy he could put in a painting before it exploded.” ***

Arkely’s dynamic and stylised use of colour and line, along with his use of an airbrush to apply paint, created images intentionally devoid of the artist’s hand. Through this aesthetic, Arkley’s work maintained a consistent exploration of both the suburban sphere and popular culture within Australia. **

Arkley’s works are held in Collections across Australia, including the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia. **

* Learning resources: Howard Arkley, Timeline, National Gallery of Victoria** Artist profile: Howard Arkley, Museum of Contemporary Art *** Howard Arkley, the man who saw Australian suburbia in technicolour, Fiona Gruber, The Guardian, 7 December 2015


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