In the world of Australian art, Howard Arkley has become synonymous with suburbia. Surprisingly, Arkley says he is ambivalent about the suburbs: It changes from day to day, from hour to hour. I can walk to the studio thinking that this is all great, it’s fantastic and then on the way back I can see the streets, the houses and think: God it’s awful, it’s such a waste of life” (Crawford and Edgar, 124). For his 1996 painting, Floral Exterior, Arkley airbrushed synthetic polymer paint on canvas.
Although Arkley originally used a primarily black and white color palette, Floral Exterior is an example of a typical work by Arkley; it is extremely similar to his Floriated Residence (1994) and Houseomorphics (1996) which both depict suburbia through the airbrush technique with patterned florals stenciled over vivid blocks of color.
The work is very elaborate and almost Rococo in its overwhelming ornamentation in order to evoke a sense of texture. Although the base of each outlined surface is one bold color, Arkley has stenciled in multiple tones of saturated purples, lemons yellows, and lime greens, all swirled together producing a psychedelic and almost garnish result. The overlapping of floral and lace-like patterns and clashing colors like the pale yellow against the maroon on the mailbox post, give the painting a cluttered and claustrophobic feel.
Floral Exterior’s creation may be a direct correlation between Arkley’s move from the primarily urban environment of Prahan and St. Kilda to the suburban Oakleigh in 1991 (Preston, 167). Artistically, Arkley was influenced by Fernand Leger’s strong, stark black lines outlining color panels seen in Leger’s 1952’s The Chair, as well as vibrant color choices made famous by Wassily Kandinsky, see 1909’s Weilheim-Marienplatz and Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun.
Arkley was also tremendously influenced by 1950s home and leisure periodicals, specifically Home Beautiful that he used for inspiration for over two decades, as well as promotional photography from real estate agencies. (Preston, 187). Floral Exterior is “the ultimate exercise in ‘playing house’” and manipulating the nostalgia and kitsch of the stereotypical 1950s home into something distorted through abstraction, pattern, and simulated texture “yet strangely familiar” (Preston, 189-191).
The work depicts a generic suburban home, but in amplified, hallucinogenic colors and conflicting designs. In the foreground there are acid greens, yellows, and aquamarines juxtaposed to represent the front lawn of the house, as well as a cerulean blue, lilac, burnt orange, yellow, and deep maroon mailbox next to a bush represented by a deformed, hazy pink cluster with various ruddy magenta shapes. The hyper-artificial pink foliage is the only color block that has no pattern woven over it, making it look implanted onto the picture. Although the painting is bursting with color, the painting is distinctly flat and slick, like the glossy images Arkley used for inspiration. The middle ground shows the doors and windows of the vacant home while the background displays the roof, chimney, and sky. In terms of perspective, the house is set at an awkward angle and nothing is a uniformly single color that keeps the eye wandering from color block to color block guided by the isolating black lines. The lack of human presence and signs of domesticity in the painting give the house a “sense of soullessness” and factory-made quality (Crawford and Edgar, 127).
One of Arkley’s signature elements is stenciling, particularly with elaborate overlapping and veiling affects. Arkley acknowledged his extensive use of floral stenciling was a contribution of his partner and studio assistant, Alison Burton (Gregory, 75). Arkley used lace and floral patterned plastic tablecloths to “echo the elements of suburban horticulture” (Gregory, 77).
Arkley’s representation is a comment on the baby boomers expansion into the suburbs and artistically, the move from the conventional Australian landscape painted at the Heidelberg school to the seemingly banal suburban home (Clark, 5). The painting also represents a slew of contradictions: “the houses are public and private, male and female, ugly and beautiful, transcendent and ordinary, landscape and city,” natural and artificial (Crawford and Edgar, 128).
Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar, “Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley,” Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002, pp. 124-128
Edwina Preston, “Not Just a Suburban Boy,” Duffy & Snellgrove, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 167-216
John Gregory, “Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of Howard Arkley,” Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2006, pp. 75-77
Tony Clark, “Howard Arkley,” Monash University Gallery, Blackburn, Melbourne, 1991