Thursday, March 17, 2016

Through a Glass, Arkley

Primitive Gold, (detail), Howard Arkley, 1982 - Photo by Pants

TarraWarra Museum of Art is an eight-hour round trip by car from Larrikin's End. There's no other way to get there as it's located in the middle of a vineyard. I will make that trip only for something very special. With a few days to spare, I packed some smoked salmon sandwiches and a flask of coffee and headed west for Howard Arkley and Friends. The price of petrol helpfully plummeted to 95c a litre on the day and the Pantibago was eager for a long run down what passes for a motorway in this part of the world. You can't trust the coffee or the sandwiches outside of the city and I'd rather spend $40 from my tight budget on a catalogue than squander it on unpleasant but necessary nourishment. The trip went well and I'm still snacking on the catalogue, so only good decisions there.

I didn't know all that much about Howard Arkley. He rose to fame after I'd abandoned the mother country and he died young, long before I very foolishly decided to give the relationship another go. (How was I to know that the place was about to plunge into a socio-political suicide spiral?) Speaking of which, I often wonder why I'm drawn to the work of self-destructive people. Mark Rothko, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Diane Arbus, Brett Whiteley, not to mention Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix and Ian Curtis. When you burn the candle at both ends, it doesn't half light up the room. Standing surrounded by Howard Arkley paintings, I quickly realise that I have another name to add to that list.

As I enter the gallery via vast glass doors, I feel myself smiling in that familiar way that I immediately recognise as wordless joy. It's an instinctive understanding between the eye and the brain where pure information is transferred without resort to a single adjective or metaphor. None are needed. Makes it a bit hard to write about though. I'll try to limit my usage of superlatives, but be warned, I might not be able to get through it without blurting out a 'splendid' at some point.

What I want from a retrospective, more than anything else, is honesty. When an artist has died, and especially when he/she has died young, unexpectedly and within living memory, I want to see instantly that the curator has understood how important it is to convey a sense of immediacy and loss. I need the room to grieve, in a way. I want the tension of a life interrupted, the suggestion that the artist has just stepped out of the room, perhaps uttering the words, 'I may be some time...' This is exactly what I get.  Sensitive and complete. In the white-cube world in which we are compelled to witness, that's no small skill.

This is only the second exhibition I've been to at TarraWarra. The first was Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011. The subtitle flummoxed a few fellow visitors - Smart was still breathing at the time of the exhibition in 2013. But he had completed his very last painting, Labyrinth, which was on display. He had said it was his last. At ninety, he retired. That understanding of a life lived uncompromisingly but tranquilly came across very clearly. After visiting that show, I bemoaned the fact that there was nothing to buy - the catalogue had sold out. That was my only complaint.

The Arkley catalogue is a continuing delight but the essays are like unsalted water crackers minus the spicy dip, which is a pity as the artwork reproductions are quite, well, splendid. Someone like Arkley doesn't easily distill into sterile art-speak. Does anyone worth writing about? One of the great curating innovations of the last decade has been the inclusion of artists' sketches, notebooks, workings-out, correspondence and related artefacts. These tend to be much more illuminating than the white-card pronouncements artsplaining the 'explorations', 'investigations' and, (pause for disdaining grimace), 'interrogations' which supposedly drive the artist's 'oeuvre'.

Years ago, I visited Brett Whiteley's former studio in Sydney. This is what I want, I thought - personality, steps you can retrace, presence. One of the best exhibitions I ever experience was Diane Arbus at the V&A in London in 2005. Her notebooks were a revelation and I nearly burst into tears when I saw the cameras. Give me poignancy any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Fortunately, on display at TarraWarra, were a number of Arkley's 'visual diaries'. He kept notes and drawings in 20c school exercise books - as opposed to the $30 hardcover A3 journals filled with pristine white paper too good for scribbling on that they made us buy in art school (grrr!). Arkley's own sketches and notes offer a connection to the person that crusty old statements like this never could,

'In this installation, the artist playfully and somewhat perversely, elaborated on his longstanding project to explore the interrelationships between high and low culture, abstract painting and everyday decoration, and art and commerce.' (Anthony Fitzpatrick)

Really? So this energetic, spontaneous magpie woke up one morning and mumbled, 'I think I'll spend the day exploring the interrelationships between high and low culture!' Doesn't work does it? There is surprisingly little of substance written about Arkley, given his prominence in a certain reasonably prominent milieu in this country. He produced a stunning picture of Nick Cave which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and died of a heroin overdose at the age of forty-eight. That's about it in the way of an obit. So off I went in search of a quote from the artist himself and found this,

The colours in the paintings are symbolic – I know they're right – people get them – I mean taxi drivers will come in and they'll understand – it's their street – I've seen people do it, I've heard people do it – 'Oh, that's the house in my street – that's just like Dot's house!' and they'll say, 'Gee, I wonder what it's like inside – I bet it's the same as Dot's house inside!' It's true! This is pleasure, this is I've got it – when people actually really think it's a house in their street! (From a 1994 interview with Leo Edelstein for Journal of Contemporary Art)

He's talking about a series of paintings he made of ordinary suburban houses. It should be noted that Arkley came out with this after Edelstein had asked him a couple of times if he approached his work from an 'anthropological point of view.' I have dug a little deeper and discovered that Arkley had on occasion conformed to pleas for self-explanation, describing himself as a formalist - who knows under what level of duress? His notebooks show him to be a brain-stormer, ideas-miner and compulsive gatherer of ephemera. I prefer the Arkley getting all thrilled at 'that's Dot's house' over the one who supposedly belongs to a movement that,

'...problematises the concept of the new and that refuses to be situated at the end of an aborescent account of history.' (Paul Taylor, 1982)

Aborescent? Well, Arkley did have a thing for succulents, apparently. I was thinking about the film made to accompany the Jeffrey Smart exhibition and something Clive James said in relation to Smart. It's a paraphrase as I can't remember it exactly but he said something like - Australia expects artists to contribute to the national identity project - and that's why Smart got out. According to James, 'he was above all that.' My observation is that there's also an expectation that artists market themselves as a kind of public good. This could have something to do with grant-funding dependency. And then there's that weird thing where Australia got all hung up on post-structuralism, critical theory and metalanguage in the sixties and has never quite wriggled free. Arkley's work has that 'get stuck in and taste everything' quality that I associate with the real era and the actual scene in which he lived - an experience I shared in different locations. I can tell you, we were not sitting in circles asking ourselves 'what would Roland Barthes do?' around the time the Sex Pistols released Never Mind the Bollocks...

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent interview, 'all art is basically collage.' It's by no means a new idea but it is one in full and universal bloom. Our contemporary 'authentic selves' are all an amalgam of aspects and influences on a variety of platforms. There's no escape from that. More than ever, the artist's brain is necessarily an internet of things. We're all collagists now, whether we express our desire for rearranging the material world on our bodies with tattoos, in scrapbooks with glitter and bits of coloured paper or in our homes with soft furnishings and fresh flowers. 

Like Arkley, I grew up in a world that was rapidly turning into the one we have now, a world of clashing clutter and plastic excess, with lots of noise and little substance. It's impossible to view this world without seeing too much. There are only two ways of dealing with that and maintaining composure - you can either look away or look beyond. It was and is a fascinating place to filter and reorganise. This is what I love about Arkley's work. In a world where everyone has the opportunity to see the same thing, it's the alteration that defines one's unique vision. Georgia O'Keeffe said, 

'Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.'

If you want the truth, go to the artist and not the critic. The artist offers you a glimpse of what you might see in familiarity if you took another look. Everything is in conflict if you have an active eye and an enquiring mind. There's no point in getting all fidgety about subject matter and angsting over whether or not painting brightly coloured pictures of houses is kitsch or parochial or postmodern or, as Prof Robert Nelson suggests 'gilding the silly'. The subject is irrelevant and has been ever since Marcel Duchamp plonked a urinal down in a New York art gallery and called it Fountain

The impression that Australia is not sure whether it's cool to endorse Arkley or not is hard to avoid. I learned recently that architects of the realm, Lords Foster and Rogers honed their respective design aesthetics from Eagle comics and boxes of Meccano. Popular culture - is there any other kind? Frances Upritchard commissioned friends Ali Smith and Hari Kunzru to write the catalogue essays for her last show. I hope that's a trend that catches on. 

This exhibition really was a joy and on the return journey, I listened to a pile of 70s/80s 'mix tape' CDs that Sis Pants made for me a couple of years ago. The Slits, Subway Sect, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, Penetration, Wire, The Clash, The Adverts, XTC. I smiled all the way to Larrikin's End remembering how much exuberance and energy there was back then. I think my favourite paintings of the day were those comprising the Primitive series, named for a song by The Cramps. Arkley describes the amphetamine-fueled mega-session that produced the first of these in 1981 as 'claustrophobic speed pain.'

Now, that's what I'm talking about - there's your authenticity.