JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
howard arkley


Following is a transcript of an interview with Howard Arkley (19511999), done in 1994 at his studio in Oakleigh, deep in the sprawl of suburban Melbourne. Howard exploded the banality of suburbia in his hallucinatory airbrushed paintings. His shopfront studio was chaotic tubes of acrylic everywhere, colored-in photocopies and photographs of houses, bits of plastic lace tablecloth and other stencils out of this the bright, garish canvases emerged, startling and meditative, familiar and strange. I remember something he said during the interview:"I need you to help me find out something about the work that I don't already know." I liked that idea. Despite all of the Pop references there was a mystery that filtered through his work. Howard's paintings were the suburban dreamtime. (LE)

 

Leo Edelstein: Does your interest in architecture come from an anthropological point of view?

Howard Arkley: Well I'm not actually interested in architecture … A number of architectural magazines have done things on my work, trying to pin me down, and I'm quite unwilling to be …

Edelstein: But do you see your work as being anthropological like a document? Arkley: That would be a good position given what I've just said that nothing's happening but ultimately, no. I want to make visual images of significance and power that have significance to a culture … You know, you put down a horizon line and if the top half's light and the bottom half's dark then it's a landscape but when they say landscape, do they think you're not standing on the hill in Camberwell looking across at Surrey Hills and no, no, that's a landscape too, but you'd never know, you'd never know. The word landscape is tainted and fucked the landscape is right out here! I can stand and look up this highway here and it goes up and it goes over the Oakleigh station there and there's this horizon line it's fantastic! To me, it's the same as any other landscape no better and no worse, but more significant because it's one that we know. It's there you can actually reach out and touch it. Edelstein: How would you describe your relation to the colors you've used in your recent paintings?

Arkley: Well basically I'm a formalist artist I actually believe in painting. Color's an observed thing, but it's only observed in a different context. You come to the studio in the morning and I think this is about the the sixth time I've mentioned light hitting tiled roofs acres and acres, and they're all different, and then when the light hits them in different ways even the same color it's like they talk about Ayres Rock Ayres Rock? Fuck Ayres Rock! Every one of those tiles out there, when the light hits them it's always different it's extraordinary! And now they have plastic ones they're not actually fired. It's exactly the same you get up in the morning and you watch it's a romantic image the light come up or the sun setting and hitting the tiles of your local suburb boom! it's just the same as Ayres Rock! It's just as fleeting and just as meaningless … The colors in the paintings are symbolic I know they're right people get them I mean taxi drivers will come in and they'll understand it's their street I've seen people do it, I've heard people do it 'Oh, that's the house in my street that's just like Dot's house!' and they'll say, 'Gee, I wonder what it's like inside I bet it's the same as Dot's house inside!' It's true! This is pleasure, this is I've got it when people actually really think it's a house in their street!

Edelstein: It's interesting that sense of familiarity. You were talking before about chance how important is chance for you?

Arkley: On some days it seems like all chance, but its not really chance, it's actually a lot of research. I've got masses of stuff this looks like just scraps of paper on the floor but it's not it's research I've got masses of stuff, a frightening amount of stuff in fact it inhibits me. I can't be spontaneous anymore because I've done too much research that's why I'm pleased to move on to some other subjects where I haven't done quite as much. Sometimes it becomes too much of a weight it's just getting this nice balance. Spontaneity, well …

Edelstein: Do you like spontaneity?

Arkley: Well, I want them to look casual. I mean all they are these particular paintings we're looking at triangles, rectangles I mean, a kid could color it in. It couldn't be much simpler could it? It's easy …

Edelstein: It's easy in the sense that …

Arkley: But it's not.

Edelstein: You want them to appear that way …

Arkley: I want it to look and it works I remember Georges Mora, my father figure, who had an extraordinary effect on my life, after all those years we didn't sell any paintings, he says, I've got someone who wants so and so, and I go, oh god, great, and he says, well go home and do one, and I said, well it'll take a couple of weeks, and he goes, nudge, nudge, go on, you can tell me, how long's it take? Oh I said, I could probably do it in a week. He says, go on, you can tell me, you can tell me, I won't tell anybody he means, you can do it in an hour, can't you? It was the most extraordinary compliment. The look of the work was like a kid's coloring book you just draw it up, put in a black line, color it in. And he knew how long, but the work had tricked him. The work looked so slick, and to me that's how it looks out there. I've seen blocks of land since I've been here I've been here two years and like, boom! a house will be knocked down and then the stumps will go in, and it's just amazing. It only takes a week and a house appears, and they fine tune it in the second week. If you could build a painting I wish I could do a painting as quick as they build an actual house!

 

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.