By Tim Stone
Howard Arkley (and friends…) at Tarrawarra Museum of Art is a retrospective of one of the most important Australian painters of the 20th Century, and the first major exhibition of Arkley’s work since the exhibition Howard Arkley at Ian Potter Centre NGV Australia in 2006.
Spanning the entire floor space of the privately owned art museum in the Yarra Valley, Howard Arkley (and friends…) features over 60 major works.
This is a comprehensive exhibition that covers everything from Arkley’s iconic house paintings through to previously unseen early monochromes, collaborations with his friends, selected items from his archives, and even a soundtrack of the artist’s musical inspirations.
Born in 1951 in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill, Arkley is perhaps best known for the eye-popping depictions of suburban homes rendered in electric colours that he created when chosen to represent Australia at the 1999 Venice Biennale.
When he died of a heroin overdose on July 22, 1999, five weeks after his triumph at the art world’s greatest exhibition, those suburban images assumed icon status in Australian art, overshadowing much of his other work.
Arkley: Redefining Australian art
In the same way that Arkley and a new generation of artists redefined Australian art — from outback landscapes to abstract art — in the 1970s, Howard Arkley (and friends…) attempts to redefine the public image of Arkley by paying homage not just to where his work ended up, but where it evolved from: abstraction.
“They were called the new wave of Australian art and they looked at work from overseas with what was called a second-degree attitude,” exhibition co-curator Victoria Lynn says.
“They were happy to be understood as artists appropriating ideas and idioms from overseas.”
Arkley was part of a generation of artists that inherited an interest in abstraction that filtered into Australia from America through major touring exhibitions like 1967’s Two Decades of American Art at the National Gallery of Victoria’s former Swanston Street site.
Although 16-year-old Arkley did not see the exhibition that featured works by Andy Warhol, Willem De Kooning and Ad Reinhardt, he experienced them in the second-degree, through reproductions in the exhibition catalogue which he owned — fragments of which now reside in the State Library of Victoria’s extensive collection of Howard Arkley archives.
For Arkley, that once-removed experience became a recurring theme in his work.
“I wanted my work to look like a reproduction of a painting, not be a painting. I wanted it to look like it was a slide or a book, I wanted it to look like the paintings that educated me and I saw them in reproduction in books and magazines and slides etcetera,” Arkley proclaimed in the 1999 ABC documentary Howard’s Way.
1,689 artworks, 33 sketch books, 48 notebooks
Acquired from the Arkley estate by the State Library of Victoria in 2011, Arkley’s archives comprise over 1,689 artworks, 33 sketch books, 48 notebooks, as well as a large collection of source material, exhibition ephemera, photography, objects and more.
Arkley knew how to filter out what was important from the information around him; he spent the best part of three decades collecting, processing and producing stunning paintings from everyday images, while at the same time letting music and culture seep into his work.
Tim Stone on Melbourne artist Howard Arkley
Arkley drew on his personal archive to develop new works of art; for Tarrawarra Museum of Art curators Victoria Lynn and Anthony Fitzpatrick, the archives revealed a more complex picture of the artist and his methods.
“We’ve been able to unearth many of the processes, notes, visual diaries and collages he used in preparation for his paintings,” Lynn says.
Located throughout the gallery space are display cases that house sketches, collages, photocopies and notes, often alongside the corresponding finished works of art.
Much has been said about the influence the suburbs had on Arkley, but until now very little has been said about the influence music had on his artistic output.
For Dr Chris McAuliffe, art critic and author of the catalogue essay Raw power meets electronic music sounds – Howard Arkley and Popular Music, the countless references to lyrics, song titles and album names he found scattered across the artist’s visual diaries highlighted the importance of music to Arkley.
“Sometimes it’s almost as if he’s making a drawing while listening to a song, sometimes you get a sense that he’s heard a pattern or a structure in the music and he’s tried to annotate that and see if he can translate it into a painting,” McAuliffe says.
“And then other times, it’s almost as if he’s free associating words looking for titles.”
Just add jazz
A selection of jazz, punk, new wave, experimental and electronic tracks, curated by Lynn and Fitzpatrick, accompany the works in three of the four Tarrawarra gallery spaces.
Some rooms have headphones and listening stations, while the main gallery has an intermittent soundtrack that includes the likes of Muddy Waters, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Blondie and Talking Heads.
In the fourth gallery space, a long, thin expanse with views to the Yarra Valley known as the Vista Walk, hangs the ‘and friends…’ component of the exhibition.
Featured are collaborations between Arkley and Elizabeth Gower, Christine Johnson, Juan Davila and John Nixon; and works by his friends: Alison Burton, Tony Clark, Aleks Danko, Elizabeth Gower, Christine Johnson, Geoff Lowe, Callum Morton, Kathy Temin, Jenny Watson, Constanze Zikos and Peter Tyndall.
Howard Arkley (and friends…) pays homage to the things that inspired Arkley: his friends, his music, his art and his process.
Arkley knew that art was as much about the journey as the destination.
“In interviews Arkley openly spoke about his sources, in fact in several exhibitions he displayed a lot of it alongside his work,” Fitzpatrick says.
“He wanted to foreground that process behind his work, in a way it was as much his work as the finished product on the canvas.”
Arkely knew how to filter out what was important from the information around him; he spent the best part of three decades collecting, processing and producing stunning paintings from everyday images, while at the same time letting music and culture seep into his work.
In a world now awash with images, emoticons and memes, and an endless supply of music at our fingertips, we can only imagine what kind of art he would make today.
Howard Arkley (and friends…) is on at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art until Sunday February 28, 2016.
Topics: painting, visual-art, arts-and-entertainment, yarra-glen-3775