Howard Arkley painted with great care and astonishing precision, while he lived with a recklessness that worried the many people who were deeply fond of him. His sadly premature death at 48 highlights the fact that he not only lived fast, he also achieved prodigiously. He had been exhibiting professionally for almost thirty years. He was invariably included in the major surveys of contemporary Australian art, and a retrospective of his work was held at Monash University Gallery in 1991. In May this year he went to Venice as the artist representing Australia in the current Biennale. From Venice he went to London to plan an album cover for Australian singer Nick Cave, then to Los Angeles for a sell-out show of his paintings. Riding this wave of success, he then fulfilled his most enthusiastically discussed dream: he crossed the Mojave Desert in a convertible with his partner Alison to get married in the Elvis Presley Chapel in Las Vegas. A week later, back home in Melbourne, Howard died.
His attachment to genuine popular culture was a fact of his life, not a cool, ironic affectation. Although the best-known subject matter of his art is suburbia, seemingly the most boring of themes, for Howard it was an endless source of fascination, and he depicted the sedate homes of Melbourne with a lurid vitality which makes them like a crazy vision of heaven. He took imagery from the architecture, decorative patterns, ephemeral junk mail and rock and roll subculture of Melbourne's sedate residential sprawl.
The Australian fondness for paintings of the bush made no sense to Howard, when such a small percentage of the population actually lives there. He treated the suburbs with affection and curiosity. Although he is often compared to Barry Humphries, the most celebrated refugee from the Melbourne suburbs, Howard was not a satirist nor did he try to escape suburbia. During his last visit to London he went to see Humphries performing, and said it made him homesick. He lived and worked close to where he grew up.
His understanding of colour and technical virtuosity as a painter were exceptional. His skill with an air brush, which he used to create taut vibrating lines and details, gives an hallucinatory presence to his canvases. He devoted the same obsessive attention to his subject-matter as the homeowners who created the neat gardens and over-decorated interiors which appear in his pictures. In his paintings suburbia becomes larger than life, bizarre and strangely beautiful.
Howard Arkley was capricious and very funny. Even his sporadic and awkward physical energy could be funny. His thoughts and comments were often accompanied by a sudden eruption of limbs, as he started pacing about and gesticulating vigorously. Everyone who knew Howard will remember him for the way he physically emphasised any point he was making.
During the year before he died he was the focus of a considerable amount of public attention, especially after the National Portrait Gallery commissioned him to paint Nick Cave. His pictures, reproduced in magazine articles and on glossy covers, had become the essence of hip Melbourne style. His recent notable successes are also the achievement of Alison Burton, his partner for many years and, for one last week, his wife. Howard's respect for Alison provided a basis for the self-discipline which enabled him to meet the growing demand for his work. He was a remarkably gifted, immensely kind man who gave the impression of leading a disorderly life while in fact being wonderfully productive.
Howard Arkley died in Melbourne on 22 July 1999