Menzies Art Brands

38. HOWARD ARKLEY Room with Pink Chair 1998


Room with Pink Chair 1998 is a late work by Howard Arkley produced at the peak of his career. With exhibitions in Los Angeles and Venice just around the corner and major commissions planned for the National Gallery of Victoria and National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Arkley was entering a new and exciting phase of his art. Room with Pink Chair is one of several pictures from that year that look back and rework key motifs and visual source material from artworks and pattern books that inspired him earlier in his oeuvre.

Arkleys ambitious vision to create a simulacrum of the colours, forms, patterns, surfaces and materials fabricated from suburban life preoccupied him for over two decades. His interest in urban typologies culminated with works such as Riteroom 1998 (Art Gallery of South Australia collection) and Room with Pink Chair, as well as Fabricated Rooms 1997-1999 and his other magnum opus, the multi-panelled Howard Arkley: The Home Show that represented Australia at the 1999 Venice Biennale.

The visual and thematic preoccupations of these pictures, indeed in Arkleys opus throughout, underscore a persistent theme in Australian art the suburban house and garden as the locus of generic styles and stereotypes. Most Australians live in the suburbs. While Arkley was channelling the personalities and desires of peoples dcor choices and the presentation of their house and garden, he was also intent on developing his own visual and conceptual language. This vision of hyped-up day-glo colours, snazzy patterns, complex spatial arrangements and claustrophobic living spaces provided a much-needed substitute to the rural or bush mythology or inner-urban bohemia promulgated by preceding generations of artists.

Arkley was also ambivalent about the suburbs and thought it would be hell to live in the houses he painted. His pictures were not specifically conceived as portraits of individual houses per se   they present an alternative vision of Australian urbanism that shifted the ways in which these often-derided places were seen and understood. Arkleys paintings carry a focus on urbanism as both a source of order and beauty and as a harbinger of deeper anxieties or fears.

Howard Arkley first developed his trademark airbrush technique as a student at Prahran College of Art, Melbourne. Early black and white abstractions using the powdery spray of the airbrush evolved into decorative patterns found from mass-produced 1950s Australian Laminex and furnishing fabrics and design magazines through to the renowned modernist art and architecture of early twentieth century modernist painters and designers such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964).

This intriguing mix of popular culture and high art, in which every day suburban life came to be mediated through the trajectory of twentieth century art history, was a feature of Howard Arkleys 1983 Urban Paintings exhibition and the celebrated Mix n Match: A Series of Suburban Interiors, the provocatively titled sell-out exhibition of paintings held at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, in 1992. 

In Mix n Match, each room of the supposedly idyllic urban home was rendered in Arkleys distinctive colouration.1 These rooms were ostensibly drawn from glossy Melbourne real estate brochures as well as interior design magazines. John Gregory observed that Frances Joslin Golds Instant Decorator, a 1970s American designer handbook, was used as the basis for [Deluxe Setting] and most of the other interiors in the 1992 series. For Gregory: Arkley piled dense patterning and heavy colour into a domestic space that is simultaneously exhilarating and claustrophopic.2

Paintings such as Deluxe Setting and Supraroom, both from 1992, paved the way for later explorations around the same theme. The latter picture (itself based on an earlier image culled from Instant Decorator) is the source for the motif of the square-backed armchair in Room with Pink Chair, along with the circular timber coffee table, airbrushed fruit bowl and a small pile of books. Similarly, the unique stencil pattern on the chair has earlier variants and was a contemporary manifestation in one of the panels produced for Fabricated Rooms (1997-1999).3

The differences between these earlier works and the ones painted in 1998 reveal how Arkleys practice was developing. The feel of his pictures was becoming more refined. Room with Pink Chair includes the spatial ambiguity of the early 1992 works; however, it exudes an even stronger sense of orderliness and restraint. It is pared back, less detailed, certainly uncluttered and features larger expanses of form and colour that complement each other rather than jostle or compete for attention.

We sense this paring back in other works from the same year. Third Overpass 1998 takes the central section of an earlier work A Freeway Painting (Overpass) and reworks the landscape into portrait form. Arkley successfully creates a pictorial tension between the sweeping, inverted arc of the overpass and the strongly articulated vertical, horizontal and orthogonal lines of the supporting columns, buildings and road. The separate colour blocks are differentiated by a rendering in a range of soft pastels blues, yellows, mauves, oranges and greens and are unified by a subtle, metallic grey line that replaces the more emphatic black outline of the 1994 picture.

In Room with Pink Chair, Arkley takes pleasure in the arranging of the room and in the happy confluence of old and new. A table is cropped in the corner of the room so that the fragment stands for the whole. Although seemingly devoid of life, there is an implied suggestion of human habitation and activity through the open curtains and handy placement of books and fruit. Theres an optical illusion of a viewer being fixed in an imaginary position outside the painting at the back of the chair.

The unusual but compelling combination of teal green carpet contrasted with mustard architraves, a mauve rug, hot pink wall and white windowpane continue Arkleys exploration of unusual colour schemes. In earlier works, the deliberate impression given by the artist is that things are not quite right. Here, they are less raucous or deliberately out of sync. Rather, the choice and placement of colour adds to the overriding sense of refinement and neatness, perhaps resembling decorator colours found on charts in local hardware stores that are a feature of other major works of the same period. The heavy black outline used to abruptly delineate forms and space has also been modulated in Room with Pink Chair through the introduction of a more muted grey. This grey is light and softens the pattern of the chair, stencilled in pink, contrasted and floated on a sea of green.

Howard Arkleys pictures from the 1990s period continue to receive the highest accolades and set record-breaking prices at auction. While the best of these introduced a new urban aesthetic and formal complexity into Australian art, later works, including Room with Pink Chair, show the continuing development and refinement of his art. First shown at Metro Galleries, Melbourne, in February 2002, it is a fine example of Howard Arkleys late housescapes, his love of intricate pattern and of contrasting colours, allied to a forensic eye for the strangely unsettling orderliness of suburban life.


1. Crawford, A. and Edgar, R., Spray: The work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2001, p.89
2. Gregory, J., Deluxe Setting 1992, Menzies, Australian and International Fine Art & Sculpture, Melbourne, June 2019, p.66
3. Gregory, J., Room with Pink Chair 1998,

Rodney James BA (Hons); MA

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