(c) The Estate of Howard Arkley. Licensed by Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art
32. HOWARD ARKLEY Deluxe Setting
Deluxe Setting, first shown in Howard Arkley’s Mix ’n Match exhibition at Tolarno Galleries in South Yarra in November 1992, marks yet another critical juncture in a career full of dramatic shifts and changes. Recycling a composition from Frances Joslin Gold’s Instant Decorator, a 1970s American designer handbook also used as the basis for most of the other interiors in the 1992 series, Arkley piled dense patterning and heavy colour into a domestic space that’s simultanously exhilarating and claustrophobic.
A complex masterpiece in its own right, Deluxe Setting foreshadows the artist’s further explorations of intricate pattern and ambiguous space during his later years, culminating in the 1999 Venice Biennale installation, which opened only a month before his sudden death in July of that year.
Attempts to identify the “essential” themes and characteristics of Arkley’s art – a favourite pastime of both amateur and professional viewers – often seem disappointingly superficial or partial. In the present context, though, one quality seems to take us close to the core of his art: his obsessive concern with ornament and pattern – from his “abstract” works of c1974-78, to his 80s exploration of graffiti, tattooing and other forms of decoration, through to his final simulacra of suburbia.
Both pattern-making and ornamentation had their critics in the preceding modernist era, as is well known. In the 1910s and 20s, Adolf Loos (1870-1933), Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and other rule-makers railed against anything that smacked of ornamental degradation of “pure form” in architecture. Later, influential US critic Clement Greenberg (1904-1994) and his acolytes vigilantly patrolled post-war painting for any trace of decorative or illusionistic contamination of the picture plane.
But such strictures were of little interest to Arkley and his contemporaries, all beginning their careers in early 1970s Melbourne, and later labelled “Popists” or Postmodernists. The different members of this motley group actually had diverse interests and aims, ranging from apocalyptic to cool and witty. For Arkley and Elizabeth Gower, who married in 1973 and shared a Prahran studio through the 70s, pattern-making was a critical means of extending and complicating abstract art, adding elements and ideas drawn from craft, non-Western culture, and feminism. The result was a series of highly inventive works, culminating in classic “art trams” by both artists for the series commissioned by the Victorian and Metropolitan Tramways Board in the late 1970s. Almost any type of pattern interested Arkley, from a sublime Islamic mosaic to a photo in a Myers brochure, and these varied decorative elements re-surfaced continually in his work during the later 1970s and 80s. In his images of suburbia, a subject he first explored directly in 1983 and then more systematically from 1988 onwards, pattern played a key role, often contrasted ambiguously with the bland architectural outlines culled from real estate drawings and interior design books. The results could be startling, as witnessed by Deluxe Setting and the other paintings in his 1992 Tolarno exhibition.
I recall the Mix’n Match show vividly, not least because Howard and Tolarno director, Jan Minchin, invited me to write the catalogue essay. I’d admired his work for some time, but had only met him, through my partner, a year or so earlier. The opportunity to see his work in process, interview him, and write about his work was exciting, but also slightly daunting, as most of my previous career as an art historian had been spent ruminating on medieval and Renaissance works. Looking back, though, this background proved curiously apt, since those periods typically drew no hard and fast distinctions between art and ornament, but instead often found common ground. In a medieval masterpiece like the Book of Kells (an Arkley favourite), it’s hard to say where figuration and ornament begin and end.
At the same time, Arkley’s approach to pattern, like so many other aspects of his art, was clearly of his own time. Whether or not the term “Postmodern” really fits Arkley and his peers, there’s no doubt that he liked to quote or pastiche decorative motifs and patterns, not indiscriminately, but for specific purposes, making his suburban interiors and exteriors considerably more unsettling and multi-faceted than they seem at first glance.
The patterned floors in many of the Mix ’n Match canvases are painted flat against the picture surface, rather than conforming to the linear perspective of the rooms depicted, thus producing a spatial mismatch. Arkley had already experimented with a similar idea in his first explicitly suburban canvases in 1983, Suburban Interior (in the Heide Museum of Modern Art collection, Victoria) and Suburban Exterior, both featuring heavily outlined suburban detail over a flat pattern, the former sprayed directly onto a piece of floral-pattern wallpaper.
Conversely, the patterned carpets in several of the Mix ’n Match canvases open up illusionistic depths to the humdrum rooms depicted. In Mod Style, for instance, the dining setting hovers over a chaotic abyss of vivid, roiling pink forms, like some sort of nightmarish sea. And in Rococo Rhythm, the bedroom floor features a dot-matrix pattern that shifts disconcertingly from light to dark beneath the bed (whose quilt features another agitated, rose-coloured pattern), implying who knows what emotional or sexual intensity lurking under the tidily domestic surface. The flooring in Deluxe Setting is far less visually disruptive.
But here, tension is ramped up through the contrast between the various patterns and colours involved. It’s as if an insane or half-blind interior decorator has been let loose on this room, determined to combine as many conflicting motifs, patterns and hues as possible: the prominent blood-orange stencilled floral couch; the zig-zag, Islamic-looking green wallpaper; the jazzy black and white curtains; three differently spotty table and rug designs; and, for good measure, the purple and red brick-patterned carpet. In the face of this ornamental barrage, a blue door or window appears at the top left, as if to allow some desperately-needed air into the room.
As Arkley admitted, such houses would be hideous to live in. But, of course, Deluxe Setting is a painting, not a real environment (a key distinction that seems to confuse both his fans and detractors) – and, as a painting, it’s a tour-de-force, juggling pattern, colour, perspective and suburban references with dazzling skill. As Margaret Plant put it, in a recent account of Arkley as a “master of pattern,” his suburban interiors, “with too many chintzes, a clash of ornaments – not Matisse’s oriental rugs…, but something from a Target store or equivalent,” exude “topicality and vitality.” The plethora of patterns and references echoes the rather different treatment of this same composition, the previous year, in one of the canvases in Arkley’s collaborative installation with Juan Davila, Blue Chip Instant Decorator: a Room (Benalla Art Gallery, 1991-92), each artist pitting contrasting political and cultural references against the other, in a stylised “pictorial battle” (Juan Davila, quoted by Stephen O’Connell
A final clue to the Mix ’n Match series is Spartan Space (Homage to De Stijl) (Ballarat Art Gallery collection, Victoria), the one canvas not based on one of the good taste designer pages in Gold’s Interior Decorator. The reference in this case, slightly modified, is a classic of high modernist design: Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House of 1924. The juxtaposition of its purist forms and primary colours to the overload of later twentieth century décor in Deluxe Setting and the other works in the series adds yet another layer to an intricate project.
Stencilling, using floriated plastic tablecloths and the like, central to the patterning in Deluxe Setting, owed considerable inspiration to Alison Burton (Arkley’s partner since 1989 and his main studio assistant from c1990 onwards), who used it extensively in her own paintings at this early stage of her own career. This motif took centre stage in Arkley’s next Tolarno series, Pointillist Suburbs (November 1994), where an increasingly subtle approach to colour and pattern emerged, this time applied to suburban exteriors, the all-over pattern now spreading across the entire canvas, including ground and sky, in a group of paintings widely regarded as the pinnacle of Arkley’s artistic achievement, but founded on the Mix ’n Match series.
In his final grand suburban gesture, Fabricated Rooms (Corbett Lyon & Yueji Lyon Collection of Contemporary Australian Art, Melbourne), first shown in 1997 and then in Venice in 1999, expanded to 17 canvases measuring almost 20 metres in total length, Arkley extended the spatial and decorative complexities initiated in 1992 to propose a paradoxically cinematic vision of suburbia. Folded into the mise-en-scène were quotations from a number of his own earlier suburban interiors, including the black and white curtaining of Deluxe Setting, and several stencilled chairs, floating eerily in a shifting sea of mauve and blue.
A note on references:
All the works mentioned here are discussed in one or more of the following publications (each with further relevant references): Howard Arkley: Mix ’n Match: A Series of Suburban Interiors, Tolarno Galleries, 1992; Ashley Crawford & Ray Edgar, Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, 1997 (rev.edn., 2001); John Gregory, Carnival in Suburbia: the Art of Howard Arkley, Cambridge University Press, 2006, esp.ch.1; and www.arkleyworks.com (online catalogue raisonné). See also Stephen O’Connell, “Blue Chip Instant Decorator – Howard Arkley & Juan Davila (Interviewed).” Globe e-journal vol.3 (1996) [http://artdes.monash.edu.au/globe/issue3/decorate.html]; and Margaret Plant, Love and Lament: an essay on the arts in Australia in the twentieth century, Thames & Hudson, 2017, p.382.
Dr John Gregory