i, artist

Have you ever commented to someone else on a work of art that you were viewing in a gallery? And was the artist standing behind you?

The other day I shared a post here which included a delightful little story about the artist Howard Arkley standing behind a couple of elderly women as they viewed one of his paintings. The story resonated with me because I had a similar experience in the one and only time I’ve exhibited a work. My ceramic sculpture class at university had a group showing in my second year at the local gallery. We were all there on the opening night, in an upstairs room of the gallery, all very chuffed. Quite a good turn out from the public too. People everywhere. At one point I saw 2 young, artsy bohemian-looking guys standing before my figurative work and I thought it’d be fun to stand behind them and hear what they said – the anonymous artist eavesdropper. Haha, they’d have no idea! What fun!

One of them turned to the other and said “Heh. Why didn’t he just write ‘Help me’ with his blood on the walls?”

Ok, so it wasn’t quite the same…

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this is suburbia

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw this very work in all its airbrushed glory hanging on the wall. Any protest at its presence which might have leapt out of my heart and lungs evaporated even before it could take shape in my mind as I stood mesmerised before the stucco home’s pulsing luminescence. The reproduction can’t convey the physical presence of the thing ‘in the paint’ – the larger size, glowing phosphorescence and airbrushed fuzziness combining to create an hallucinatory quality to the suburban home which captivated me. This was no architectural plan. This was… beautiful. Something happened that fateful day in 1999. I would never see suburbia, art, or my life in quite the same way again.

Too much? Well I was young. But for a period afterwards Arkley (who died tragically of heroin overdose in 1999)  held the status of Ryan’s favourite artist, (much cherished in the Australian art world), and to this day Stucco Home 1991 remains one of my favourites and retains a special place in my heart.

Look again. Look at what he’s doing here. Arkley painted life. Not ‘life’ in any abstract sense, but the life of so many of us. Whether or not as we want it to be, he painted it as it is. You know the standard icons of Australiana: gum trees, koalas and kangaroos, wide-brimmed hats with corks dangling from strings. But such icons are myth. Sure they belong to Australia, but not to the daily experience of most Australians. Arkley once said, ‘Something like 89% of Australians live in this environment . . . it’s something that’s denied so often’. When I see the stucco home, transformed by the airbrush into Australian icon, it represents my suburban experience growing up. It symbolises so much of my childhood. And that’s no generic suburban home. It’s just so…Aussie. The Aussie of the 80’s and early 90’s. You know, it’s not just memories but the identity that it represents, my national identity, which fills me with affection. Arkley once shared a favourite story of his, of him standing behind two elderly women viewing one of his paintings. One of the women turned to the other and exclaimed ‘Ooh! That looks just like Dot’s house!’. Exactly, little old lady. Exactly.

The obsessive precision of the airbrush comes from Arkley’s detestation of the messiness of creating with brush and paint tin. It forms a quality that reflects the same obsession with neatness and perfection shared by so much of suburbia itself. It’s not a sentiment I share myself, but it expresses his subject matter better than any ‘expressive’ wild brush strokes or whatever that I would’ve assumed necessary for any generic personal expression. I may have spent so much of my time when younger aching to burst free of my neat, safe, constrained suburban environment… but hey, that doesn’t mean I should deny its major place in my life, personally and culturally, nor Arkley’s brilliance in capturing it so simply and colourfully, exuberantly  bringing it to life.

Like it or hate it, this is Australia. This is suburbia.