Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
South of the border, pomo rules
The real Sydney-Melbourne difference is not the laneways or the shopping or the stand-up or the bars, though these are all better in Melbourne. Nor is it the beaches, the topography and the climate, though, yes, yes (sigh), these are more rapturous in Sydney. The real difference is attitudinal, as captured by comparing our two favourite junkie-artist sons: Sydney’s Brett Whiteley and Melbourne’s Howard Arkley. It’s not just the contrast between Whiteley’s sexualised nature-scapes and Arkley’s starched fluoro suburbia, but a polar difference in how their works are read.
The parallels are obvious enough. Both Arkley and Whiteley died prematurely, seven years apart and at their zenith, from accidental overdoses of heroin; Whiteley in a Thirroul motel room, Arkley in his Melbourne studio. Both chose to heighten a precocious dexterity with line through narcoticenrichment, sometimes to the point of facility. And both are loved – lionised, even – for their energetic and boyish capture of the genius loci, and their equally energetic and boyish deaths. But where Whiteley became the Fred Williams of Sydney Harbour – its watery ground splashed with spume and frond and curvilinear buttock – Arkley stuck to the flat land of flyscreen doors, feature walls and nailscissor lawns. To Whiteley’s mild chromophobia, Arkley – just 11 years younger but therefore of the TV generation – became the “doyen of domestic DayGlo”. And where Whiteley’s was a very personal poetic, as intimate and salty as his gaze into Lavender Bay, Arkley stands well back, a full spray can arm’s length, painting the square generic.
The Art Gallery of NSW, where the National Gallery of Victoria’s Arkley retrospective is now showing, hails him as “the foremost painter of Australian suburbia”. And this, indeed, is part of his appeal – a psychedelic Edna Everidge for the gallery-going classes. It is tempting to see Robin Boyd’s “featurism” here, too, the “mean little efforts of everyone to make a noticeable splash in the street”.
But this isn’t quite right. Arkley’s suburbia is not just generic but American generic, with many of the interiors, such as the startling Dining in a Glow, lifted directly from Gold, a ’70s US interiors manual, then washed with a sensibility that is Lassie-on-acid. Nor was Arkley the architectural ingenue he seemed, his library stacked with architecture texts and the ’80s bible, Domus mag.
Arkley’s epiphany came, he said, on his 1977 return from the compulsory Euro-travels, in encountering his mother’s flywire screen. In Paris, he told Max Cullen, he had obsessively photographed hundreds of art-deco and art-nouveau doorways; here, he felt, in the suburban flywire, was our equivalent.
But this was less a love of the ‘burbs than Arkley’s lysergic absorption with pattern. “Ordinary houses,” he explained, “are full of pattern. You go into a house, there’s no art … but it’s filled with a kind of second-degree imagery.”
Fireplace, curtains, carpet, bricks, tiles, lawn, shrubs; Arkley’s pattern-loving eye and spray-can rendering give his work the Matisse-meets-Mambo quality that makes it so easy-liking, while begging critics to dismiss him as superficial.
It also made him the darling of Melbourne’s ironic-populism set. The La Trobe University Jane Austen scholar and indefatigable blogger, Laura Carroll, describes how her partner’s purchase of an outer-suburban 1950s brick bungalow became cool when seen as a “Howard Arkley house”. Melbourne architects such as Edmond and Corrigan and ARM have for decades pursued the same high brow-low brow pop aesthetic, with a very postmodern mix of sophisticated irony and football-loving refusal to satirise.
Arkley embodied this ambivalence; claiming genuine admiration for suburbia even as he admitted it could be “soulless, tragic and sad”. “I wouldn’t want to live in it,” he told an interviewer. “I actually moved out to the suburbs to get a hands-on experience … and it’s really boring.” Melbourne loves this stuff. Loves to love what it hates. Loves the ambiguity, the twist.
In Sydney, though, such pomo dandyism goes down badly. Arkley, we point out, does little that pop artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton and Memphis’s Ettore Sottsass didn’t do 20 years earlier. John McDonald calls Arkley “irredeemably minor”, his paintings “failed abstractions … playing roulette with a colour wheel”.
And yet there is something interesting here. The man could draw, for one. Arkley’s early work, like the elegant First a Piece Called Nerve (1975), shows a hand quite as effortless as Whiteley’s or Olsen’s, suggesting his move to extreme technique and extreme colour was an attempt, like Klee and Cezanne before him, to unlearn drawing, and relearn innocence.
Much is made of the dark complexities beneath Arkely’s patterned suburban surfaces. And certainly those gingerbread houses, with their loud licorice-allsorts pseudo-naivety, make it easy to credit the witch within. But there’s transcendence too, as though the acid colours might cut through the suburban banal to some kind of redemption. God knows, as the terrifying Tattooed Head and more terrifying polka-dot mainlining of TheRitual insist, we need it.
Architecture has long provided art with symbolic ore. Piero della Francesca helped kickstart the Renaissance by using architecture to put humanity at the centre. Where he painted humanism’s germ, though, Arkley gave us its decadent endgame.
And Whiteley shows it splashing like a Qantas takeover bid into the sea.
ILLUSTRATION Illustration: Kerrie Leishman