As an artist who created new ways of representing and resetting our self-view for over four decades, Howard Arkley is one of Australia’s most assured observers of the Melburnian mindset. For me, Arkley’s intersection of architecture and art – distilled, forensic, sharp, hyper-realised – bears witness to a suburban Melbourne so embedded in our psyche few of us can truly separate ourselves from it.
Lucky enough to soak up the Howard Arkley (and Friends..) exhibition at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art recently, it’s hard to resist being drawn immediately to the familiar large, near fluorescent renderings of Melbourne’s suburban houses and apartments.
Unlike his close contemporaries Bracks and Smart – who inserted people into their ‘urbanscapes’ (albeit often disassociated from their surroundings) – Arkley provides no human dimension or any real evidence of human presence in his exquisitely airbrushed canvases of apartment buildings, laneways, flyovers.
Although Arkley didn’t shy away from representing people in his works (his commissioned portrait of Nick Cave in a near trademark style of the 80s is regarded as another iconic work), the figure is absent from Arkleys’ houses. Instead, the crisply described exteriors, prescribed gardens and formica coated interiors allow us to project our cringing derision onto them: the collective memory of summers under the sprinkler, the obligatory fish and chips on Fridays, washing on the HillsHoist.
No surprise then that these images irked some of the art elite of the 80s. Think too how eager we were to rid ourselves of our childhood memories of suburbia by travelling to Europe as soon as we could. None of us wanted our noses rubbed in the endless tediousness of suburban life and its self evident lack of sophistication.
Meanwhile, our political masters – charged by the same fretful urges – set about morphing Melbourne into some mock New York or Chicago. For Arkley – an artist educated in the grit of Prahan CAE in the late 60s – the systematic obliteration of St Kilda Rd’s mansions and their replacement with banks of soaring glass must have been a heartfelt anathema. Instead of raging he resolutely captured Melbourne’s metamorphosis in ‘High Rise St Kilda Rd’.This slice of Arkley’s career by no means defines his body of work. His earlier White Series of paintings and works on paper provide an unexpected introduction to a minimalism the less well informed (i.e. me) might not associate with Arkley.
The works across the exhibition give a much richer picture of Arkley’s practice through his connection to music, his works as stream of consciousness, his working drawings and his exemplary technical capacity as well as his working relationships and collaborative style.
I have no doubt Arkley is an artist many Australians recognise but more Australians will come to know as someone who pinned a generation firmly to our origins and put a mirror up to the veneer of our self regard.
For the authoritative outline on Arkley a detailed catalogues is available at Arkley Works
A review of the current exhibition is here:
A touching remembrance of Howard Arkley by fellow artist Tony Clark, given at the opening of the Tarra Warra exhibition, is worth a listen for a personal insight http://www.twma.com.au/exhibition/howard-arkley-and-friends/