Howard Arkley is best known for his representation of the Australian suburbs, for his exuberant, theatrical paintings of suburban homes and environments. In his dramatic, hallucinatory Floral exterior, he creates a sense of suburban ‘exotic’ in order to beautify the domestic arena. It is as though so-called ordinary, everyday existence has been transmuted into the extraordinary.
Arkley has drawn upon a wide range of sources in the evolution of his vision – from an abiding fascination with Pop Art through to an avalanche of material relating to the home, including magazines, real estate brochures, and interior decoration and do-it-yourself manuals. With humour and pathos, he discovered ways of entering into and amplifying obsessions with home and garden.
Wallpaper, for example, is traditionally a means of introducing a decorative element to interior rooms, the motifs of flowers and leaves providing a way to bring nature inside. In Floral exterior, Arkley’s reversal of the florid wallpapering in a range of vivid hues across house, sky, letterbox and lawn brilliantly conveys the merging of cultivated interior with exterior to evoke a dream-like state of mind. In contrast to the stereotype of the predictable ‘suburban dream’ of the 1950s, the artist appears to suggest that the self-contained exteriors of the classic suburban home might in fact mask hidden eccentricities and imaginative interior worlds.
A particularly striking aspect of this work is the cloud of bold red-on-pink motifs behind the letterbox. Certainly one of the most expressive flourishes in an Arkley painting, it is as if the stencilled wallpaper has suddenly given rise to a new language of signs and symbols that bursts forth with joyful abandon.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002