Obituary: Howard Arkley

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The Independent Culture
HOWARD ARKLEY'S death on Thursday, from a heroin overdose, cut short the career of one of Australia's brightest artistic talents. The adjective is used advisedly. Everything about Arkley was bright: the colours of his Pop-inspired paintings, the energy of his febrile personality, the prospects for his career, even the choice of his ties.

Only six weeks ago Arkley was in Venice, being feted by the international art world, as the official Australian representative at the 48th Venice Biennale of Art. When Cherie Blair, on her well-publicised cultural mini- break at the Biennale, called in at the Australian pavilion to admire Arkley's acid-coloured, airbrush-defined paintings of suburbia, she swooped down on the unsuspecting - and hung-over - artist and insisted on kissing his bright red necktie. Whether the tie's redness had any political significance is doubtful. Arkley was a painter who relished colour for its own sake.

Arkley was born in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills in 1951. It was an environment of modestly comfortable, aspirational conformity such as inspired the satirical paintings of John Brack, and the satirical wit of Barry Humphries. In time it would inspire Arkley's own artistic vision.

Arkley's artistic awakening occurred in 1967 when chance led him into a Sidney Nolan retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was - according to him - the first exhibition he had ever been to. The effect was electrifying. He was completely bowled over by Nolan's surreal reworking of Australian landscape and myth - parrots flying upside down, and Ned Kellys, and trees with skeletons of cows caught in them. The next day Arkley began painting.

There was no artistic tradition or expectation in the family, but Arkley was sent to Prahran College in Melbourne, in the hope that he might make a career as a commercial artist. Once there, however, he devoted himself to exploring the world of modern art, drawing particular energy from the contrasting worlds of Surrealism and Minimalism. His self-belief, enthusiasm and individual vision marked him out as a true artist even then.

While others abandoned art after their training, Arkley persevered. Setting up a studio in Chapel Street, Prahran, the colourful, Bohemian inner-suburban thoroughfare that would become his base for the next 17 years. His earliest shows were with the Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne's most imaginative commercial gallery. The work was austere, monochromatic and abstract. It was a period of growing control and development as Arkley began to master the use of the airbrush.

The finish and precision which became the enduring characteristic of Arkley's work was arrived at partly as an accident of the artist's Australianness. "My art education was all through slides and books," he admitted. "I really liked that flat surface quality that you got in the reproductions. Looking at Ken Noland and Jasper Johns, I thought the work was all done with masking tape." He set about developing a style that achieved the effects, not of these painters' original works, but of their reproductions.

In 1977 Arkley was awarded three prestigious grants - the Alliance Francaise Art Fellowship, and the Visual Arts Board residencies at Moya Dyring Studio, Paris, and the Greene Street Studio, New York. The awards gave Arkley an opportunity to travel in Europe and in America, to experience new environments and to see art at first hand that he previously had known only in reproduction.

He returned from his travels invigorated but convinced of the direction that his own work must take: "I realised what I needed to do: I was Australian and had to deal with that." Rather than turning to the great myth of the Australian outback, landscape which had sustained the work of Nolan's generation, Arkley began his compulsive exploration of Australian suburban culture.

Moving gradually from monochrome into colour and from abstraction into figuration, his first paintings were decorative grids inspired by the meshes of flywire screen-doors. From this tentative beginning he moved - by the mid-1980s - to vividly coloured images of suburban exteriors and interiors.

While Brack's suburban pictures had been caustic and satirical, Arkley's were more ambivalent. "I don't pass judgement," Arkley claimed. "At least in the paintings." There is a frank pleasure in the forms and patterns of familiar objects - the world of crazy paving, Deco porches and Jason recliner- rockers. Nevertheless there was always a hint of something else beneath the bold Pop arrangements of colour, pattern and line. A sense of disquiet pervades the scene. There are no people in Arkley's suburbia, and the acid colours and fuzzed black, airbrush-applied outlines seem to vibrate with a toxic radiation.

The success of these paintings carried Arkley to a new and wider audience. His official selection for the Venice Biennale was followed by a sell- out show at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Los Angeles. In the wake of these twin triumphs he drove a convertible across the Mojavo desert to Las Vegas, where he married his long-time companion Alison Burton last week.

A few days later Arkley, with his new wife, returned to Melbourne, flushed with success, and excited by the possibilities of future work.

Rebecca Hossack

Howard Arkley, artist: born Melbourne, Victoria 1951; married 1999 Alison Burton; died Melbourne 22 July 1999.