Held at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria’s Healesville from 5 December 2015 to 28 February 2016, a retrospective of Howard Arkley’s iconic paintings and inspirations gave insight into his exploration of suburban Australia.
When we think of the Australian landscape, we tend to imagine scenes of desert expanses, white sandy beaches or national architectural icons, not the ubiquitous suburban brick-veneer house.
The suburb, as it is reflected in our art and culture, has, for most of our history, been largely ignored by some and vehemently derided by others. Architect Robin Boyd wrote in his bestselling book The Australian Ugliness (1960), “there is little or no collective pride in the suburb, only a huge collection of individual prides.”
This “collection of individual prides” was one of artist Howard Arkley’s greatest influences and the subject of his best-known works. A retrospective of Arkley’s work was recently on show at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in the regional Victorian town of Healesville.
The exhibition also displayed material from Arkley’s archive, which was acquired by the State Library of Victoria in 2011. In addition, the gallery invited Arkley’s contemporaries to contribute works to the exhibition and collated a selection of music that inspired the artist.
Arkley began his art practice in the 1970s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that he found commercial success through his paintings of suburban houses. “He wanted to capture the Australian vernacular in a way that people would recognize, respond to and embrace,” says museum curator Anthony Fitzpatrick. The most recognizable of these works is Family Home: Suburban Exterior (1993) – a variant of Triple Fronted (1988), a painting of a triple-fronted brick-veneer bungalow that, as I heard one gallery visitor say, “is the house around the corner.”
“The number of people we’ve heard say, ‘I grew up in that house, that’s my house,’” Anthony chuckled.
To Robin Boyd, the brick-veneer villa was like a disease infecting the suburbs. “The visual arts cannot rid the world of evil and ugliness, and they should not be interested in applying pleasing cosmetics to the face of the sick patient.”
But for Arkley, the suburbs were “what our day-to-day life is,” Anthony explained, “and he wilfully set out to work in that field.” On display at the exhibition was an early draft of the essay “The Naked Suburb” (World Art: The Magazine of Contemporary Visual Arts, vol 1 no 1, 1994). Arkley wrote, “I’m interested in the notion of beauty in the suburbs. There is certainly little discussion about ‘beauty,’ everyone talks about ‘ugly.’”
Arkley took the paintings Australian suburbia to the world stage at the Venice Art Biennale in 1999, with an exhibition aptly named The Home Show. Art historian Chris McAuliffe referred to Arkley as an anthropologist of the suburbs. But this reflection of Arkley’s work, juxtaposed against the thoughts of Robin Boyd, brings to mind something Boyd once wrote about his friend the satirist Barry Humphries, which could also easily apply to Arkley: “He has the modern Australian way of life stretched out and pinned down with needles.”
The exhibition Howard Arkley (and friends…) was held at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, 5 December 2015 – 28 February 2016.