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Howard John Arkley (1951–1999)

by John Gregory

This article was published online in 2023

Howard John Arkley (1951–1999), artist, was born on 5 May 1951 at Box Hill, Melbourne, elder son of Robert John Arkley, commercial traveller, and his wife Gwenda May Lewis, née Whilde, a stenographer. He was educated at Surrey Hills State School and Box Hill Technical School, studying technical drawing and art. His early student work reveals varied interests, from surrealism to rock’n’roll album covers. Later he recalled being inspired by the 1967 Sidney Nolan retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. In tertiary studies (1969–72) at Prahran College of Advanced Education (CAE), he explored Pop Art and discovered the airbrush, which he used subsequently for his distinctive sprayed line work. Fellow students John Nixon, Jenny Watson, Peter Tyndall, and Elizabeth Gower became friends and, later, noted artists. In 1973 he and Gower married and moved into a studio-flat in Chapel Street, Prahran; the couple separated in 1979.

In 1974 Arkley joined Tolarno Galleries, directed by Georges Mora, who represented John Brack and others. His first solo exhibitions of minimalist ‘white’ canvases (1975–77), based partly on theosophy and George Kubler’s art theory, were praised by critics including Alan McCulloch. With funding from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council and from Alliance Française, Arkley travelled overseas with Gower in 1977, revelling in the art, the New York graffiti, and the elaborate Parisian Art Nouveau and Art Deco doorways. Back home, he realised Australian screen doors had their own intricacy, spurring his door-format canvases (1978–80), which also referenced disco lighting, fabric design, and needlework patterns.

Arkley was eloquent about his intentions in these and other contemporary large-scale works (including a decorated Melbourne tram in 1980): ‘while still remaining abstract they have direct outside content and are not rigidly self-referring’ (quoted in Duncan 1991, 21). Of Muzak Mural: Chair Tableau, purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1982, he wrote: ‘the chairs … belong to both art history (de Stijl, Bauhaus etc.) and to aspects of everyday suburban life’ (quoted in Lindsay 1983, n.p.). Significant critical notice followed, especially from the writer and curator Paul Taylor, who applauded Arkley’s appropriations from other images and included him in the influential Popism exhibition (1982) at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Meanwhile, Arkley had turned abruptly to figurative art. Primitive, a large sprayed mural drawing exhibited at Prahran CAE in 1981, curated by his colleague and friend Tony Clark, teemed with details from Arkley’s imaginative and everyday life. It initiated the middle phase of his career, characterised by vivid colour, expressive line work, and diverse sources: Byzantine icons, Dürer’s woodcuts, children’s books, and comics. Cacti, often humanoid, appeared frequently, alongside urban topics: suicide, tattooing, psychedelic imagery, billboards, graffiti, and suburbia. In this period, Arkley also taught painting part time at the Prahran CAE (1980–85) and at the Victorian College of the Arts (1983–84).

In his house paintings, an increasing focus after 1985, Arkley said he wanted to change the way Australians see suburbia, as the landscape painter Fred Williams had done for the bush. Major examples included Our Home (1986) and Triple Fronted (1987, Art Gallery of New South Wales). Based on real estate and home improvement sources, they gain weight and moment through their scale, saturated colour, and dramatic black line work. House and Garden Western Suburbs, Melbourne (1988, National Gallery of Australia), on two canvases, endows the tidy house and surrounds with paradoxical grandeur.

In 1987 Arkley married the artist Christine Johnson, with whom he collaborated on the work Suburban Window (1987). Later he added stencilled pattern to his paintings, influenced by the artist Alison Burton, his studio assistant from 1989 and later his partner and wife. His Mix’n Match series of suburban interiors (1992) featured clashing colours and ornamentation, while subtler hues and the optical shimmer of overlapping patterns enriched the Pointillist Suburb series (1994), Arkley’s masterpiece according to Ray Edgar, a co-author of Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley (1997).

The tone of Arkley’s house paintings has excited diverse opinions, although he insisted in 1999 that he had no intention of critiquing suburbia, as had Robin Boyd and Barry Humphries: ‘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’ (Howard’s Way 2000). But neither are these stylised pictures uniformly celebratory or exuberant. Human figures are noticeably absent, and occasional spatial lurches and ornamental overload can be unsettling.

During the 1990s, Arkley revisited earlier themes, and explored new subjects, notably freeways. His 1995 White + Black exhibition juxtaposed mid-1970s paintings to recent works. Heads and masks, a recurrent interest, were prominent in the 1990 Head Show exhibition and in his portrait of Nick Cave (whose music Arkley had followed since the 1970s), commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, in 1999. In his collaborations with the Chilean-Australian artist Juan Davila, especially Blue Chip Instant Decorator: A Room (1991), domestic décor and South American imagery coexist uneasily.

In 1997 Arkley aggrandised suburbia in Fabricated Rooms, later expanded to seventeen canvases for the Venice Biennale in June 1999, where he was Australia’s official representative. The Venice Home Show earned him international praise, as did a simultaneous commercial exhibition in Los Angeles, featuring a series of glowing paintings reprising previous compositions. These triumphs seemed to prophesy fame and happiness. On 15 July he and Burton married in Las Vegas; while in Los Angeles he excitedly planned new freeway paintings, taking preparatory photographs.

On 22 July 1999, shortly after returning to Melbourne, Arkley died of a heroin overdose in his Oakleigh South studio, shocking family and friends. After a funeral at Monash University on 30 July he was buried in Springvale cemetery. Censorious press commentary on the circumstances of his death ensued, but Arkley had never glamourised his drug-taking, although it did influence certain works. The Ritual, a controversial acquisition by the State Library of Victoria in 1988, has been called a self-portrait; but when it was first shown, the image of an anonymous addict was simply one of several pictures in an exhibition titled Suburban Urban Messages.

Arkley was a mercurial character, paradoxically serious and playful, intense and light-hearted. His boisterous public persona could mislead detractors and allies alike into underestimating the seriousness of his commitment to art. The most significant posthumous tribute was Howard’s Way, a television documentary screened by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in February 2000. The architect Peter Corrigan, a like-minded advocate for suburbia, emphasised the Italian critical enthusiasm for Arkley’s paintings exhibited in Venice, and mourned the loss of an artist whose work he called simply ‘life-enhancing’ (Howard’s Way 2000). Retrospective exhibitions were held at Monash University (1991), the National Gallery of Victoria (2006–07), and the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville (2015–16). The full range of his oeuvre is illuminated by his studio collections of notebooks, drawings, and source material, held by the State Library of Victoria.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Crawford, Ashley, and Ray Edgar. Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley. 2nd ed. Sydney: Craftsman House, 2001
  • Duncan, Jenepher, ed. HA: Howard Arkley. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Gallery, 1991
  • Fitzpatrick, Anthony, and Victoria Lynn, eds. Howard Arkley and Friends. Healesville, Vic.: TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2015
  • Gregory, John. Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of Howard Arkley. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • Gregory, John. ‘Mining the Howard Arkley Archive.’ La Trobe Journal, no. 107 (2022): 6–21
  • Howard’s Way. Documentary. Directed by Tony Wyzenbeek. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2000
  • Lindsay, Robert. Against the Wall: Young Contemporary Artists Selected from the Michell Endowment of the National Gallery of Victoria. Parkville, Vic.: Melbourne University Gallery, 1983
  • McAuliffe, Chris. Art and Suburbia. Roseville East, NSW: Craftsman House, 1996
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • State Library of Victoria. The Art of the Collection. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press and State Library of Victoria, 2007
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 14217, Howard Arkley Archive

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Gregory, 'Arkley, Howard John (1951–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 14 June 2024.

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