Howard Arkley’s Last Ever Work

Howard Arkley: Untitled [house] 1999 

This impressive late painting, one of Arkley’s last completed canvases, carries particular fascination and significance, like the final works of many other creative artists. Clearly a major artistic statement on the suburban theme that preoccupied him during his mature years, it also exemplifies his later tendency to keep repeating some subjects, experimenting with different stylistic possibilities while continually refining and clarifying the central artistic ideas. His large-scale freeway paintings (1994-99) are the clearest examples, but the point is also made by this work, the last in a sequence begun some 13 years earlier.  

The subject, as with all Arkley’s suburban exteriors, originated in a simple real estate outline drawing of the type common in real estate pages in 1980s-90s newspapers. The first painting to reference it was the large 1986 canvas Our Home, hinting at the darker dimensions of suburbia through its heavy black sprayed detailing of brickwork and looming foliage, closely echoing the naïve source. Then, from 1994 onwards, Arkley reprised the image repeatedly, zooming in on its central elements: the garage door, window with striped blind, and foreground shrub. In Spray Veneer, one of the ‘Pointillist Suburb’ canvases he exhibited at Tolarno Galleries in 1994, overlapping stencilled patterns in variegated colours threaten to overwhelm the outlines of the house altogether. Conversely, a calmer unity is achieved in several smaller late 1990s versions on canvas and paper, through a combination of softer hues and grey sprayed line-work. 

The present painting brings those earlier experiments to a striking climax, while also contributing significantly to Arkley’s remarkable record of achievements in his final year – including the National Portrait Gallery’s enigmatic Nick Cave (Arkley’s only true portrait); his last furniture installation, Homezone (private collection, Melbourne), the sophisticated culmination of decades of previous thought and work; and his critically-acclaimed exhibitions in Venice and Los Angeles, still on show when he died. 

In this final variant of the subject he first painted in 1986, Arkley expanded the composition to grand scale – the canvas is over 2 metres tall – while distilling its essence. The vividly coloured planes of the building abut in sharp contrasts, articulated through muscular black line-work, the striped blind echoes the pink roof, the sky pulses beyond, and the shrub has morphed into a playful, abstract cut-out. The result is a lucid and monumental masterpiece.  


Written by John Gregory, 19 June 2023 

John Gregory lectured in art history and theory at Monash University. He has taught and written extensively on both European and Australian art. His major monograph on Melbourne painter Howard Arkley was published by Cambridge University Press in 2006.  

Discover Untitled [house] and more works by Howard Arkley presented by Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art at Melbourne Art Fair. Booth B1.

Howard Arkley, Family Home: Suburban Exterior, 1993. Collection: Monash University Museum of Art. © The Estate of Howard Arkley, Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art