Spray: The work of Howard Arkley by Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar

Book review

Australian artist Howard Arkley, who emerged in the eighties, is best known for his airbrush paintings of the great Australian blight—Suburbia. Authors Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar waste no time in locating Arkley with other Australians who comment on this culturally embarrassing area, linking Arkley with the art of John Brack, the writing of Robin Boyd (in particular The Australian Ugliness) and the humour of Barry Humphries. Inte restingly all are from Melbourne, the city that congratulates itself on its own innate good taste.

In contrast to these figures, Arkley's approach has always been deadpan, seemingly uncritical and lacking a satirical edge. Arkley clearly loves Australiana and has immersed himself in this subject matter to the point of permanent commitment. His celebration of the suburban banal, long regarded as anathema to good taste, is effective because it is so close to the bone. Suburbia is the site of the cringe. Nothing, it is assumed, ever happens there; this is terra nullius as far as culture is concerned. The existence of suburbia somehow undermines the myth we have of ourselves: although 90% of Australians live in cities we like to imagine the typical Aussie as the laconic country dweller, at ease in the outback. But Arkley paints our home range—the facades, veneers and the public fronts of the bark huts of contemporary squatters.

For most Australians, the role of art is to express our romantic relationship with the landscape. Arkley's paintings oppose this national expectation: our ideals and aspirations, as expressed by the triple fronted brick veneer, the garden gnome and barbecue area of suburbia, seem limited, vulgar and lacking in nobility. However to read the paintings in this fashion is to miss the point. In his paintings Arkley manages to capture the essence of the suburban grid, the regularity and intimate differences of metropolitan life. This use of quotidian geometry to document the emergence of order out of chaos gives Arkley's work authority as well as playful appeal.

Crawford and Edgar's text positions Arkley within his own time and outlines his relevance. They describe his early years after art school and exploration of the feminist, punk and post-minimal climate in the Melbourne of the late seventies and eighties. The issue of a decorative art is central to Arkley's work, which is self consciously 'ironic' in its stylish blandness. Arkley was influenced by the rehabilitation of 'innocent' fifties imagery by mass media and commercial design in the late seventies. Music and other aspects of popular culture were formative elements in

Arkley's development. While the artist readily acknowledges his sources, he prefers interpretation of his work to be in formal terms exclusively. The authors, however, do not confine themselves to formal analysis, adding explanations of the social concerns and subject matter of his work. They capture the period that produced and shaped Arkley.

Arkley's use of the airbrush has given the publication its title Spray—a title as deadpan and unprepossessing as his paintings. In addition, the airbrush also has given the artist the means to apply paint efficiently as line or area, thereby determining his art. Arkley's paintings are essentially linear: his designs are characteristically described in strong outline and filled-in colour and pattern. His works have a strongly decorative aspect that distinguishes them from his contemporaries and the neo-expressionist trends of the eighties. His reliance on sound drawing as the foundation for his painting also distinguishes him. Arkley's heroes, Brack, David Hackney and Albrecht Dürer for example, are artists who put great emphasis on draftsmanship. In many ways he is a curiously old fashioned artist.

The design of Spray is glamorous. The layout is well thought out, nicely matching single-spaced text with generous illustrations. Spray shows the sure hand of Terry Hogan, the designer for World Art and 21 Century and one of the best designers of art publications in Australia. More's the pity then that he has not resisted the trap of the two-page spread, splitting two of the strongest illustrations.

Crawford and Edgar write with great polish and occasional flourish. The language is clear, simple, without being patronising. The publication is aimed at the educated, artwise reader, following the artist's evolution and giving a clear rationale for his impact on Australian art. The authors have done extensive research and the monograph is peppered with numerous, insightful quotes by Arkley and his peers. Spray is a model for writers examining the work of other Australian artists. It is to be hoped that World Art plans further monographs to follow this publication.

It is interesting that Arkley, like Brack, is better known in Melbourne than in Sydney. Perhaps Arkley's stylishness, sly wit and unashamed decorativeness is equated with the charm school. This publication will in part redress that imbalance.

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Published by World Art and distributed by Craftsman House