Part 1: Important Fine Art
28 November 2012


(1951 - 1999)

synthetic polymer paint on canvas

203.0 x 153.0 cm

signed, dated, titled verso: Howard Arkley / Spray Veneer / 1994 / ...

$250,000 - 300,000
Sold for $300,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 27 - 28 November 2012, Melbourne

Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
Collection of Allan Powell, Melbourne, acquired from the above in 1994


Howard Arkley, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, November 1994, cat. 4
Howard Arkley: The Home Show, Australian Pavilion, 48th Venice Biennale of Art, Venice, Italy, 13 June – 7 November 1999 (lent by Mr Allan Powell, Melbourne)
The Home Show, Ian Potter Gallery, Melbourne, 2000 (lent by Mr Allan Powell, Melbourne)
Howard Arkley: The Retrospective, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 17 November 2006 – 25 February 2007; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 March – 6 May 2007; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 6 July – 16 September 2007 (lent by Mr Allan Powell, Melbourne, label attached verso)


Crawford, A., and Edgar, R., Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997, pp. 125, 135 (illus.)
Morrell, T., Howard Arkley: The Home Show, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney, 1999, p. 19 (illus.)
Szeemann, H., and Liveriero Lavelli, C. (eds), La Biennale Di Venezia: 48a Espozione Internazionale d'arte, Marsilio, Venice, 1999, p. 7 (illus.)
Gregory, J., Carnival in Suburbia, the Art of Howard Arkley, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 118–119 (illus.)
Arkley Works electronic catalogue raissoné reference: http://arkleyworks.com/?p=6493
© The Estate of Howard Arkley. Licensed by Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Catalogue text

If ever a painting was the essence of Howard Arkley's exploration of suburban kitsch, it would be quite rightfully his masterpiece Spray Veneer of 1994. The title alone, which was lyrically called Vernice a Spruzzo when exhibited at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, is laden with multiple meanings and takes us directly to the very heart of his obsession - the facadism and 'ticky tacky' of the middle class conformist housing project when it collides with an individual's need for self expression. Not only does Arkley capture the inherent tension in this moment, he celebrates it without judgement and free of any hint of sanctimony. His lurid, carnival palette and fantasy motifs applied with the spray gun mirror the very artifice of veneer itself, which as we know was a favourite architectural device of the 1940s and 50s employed to cover over the mundane banality of the base layer and suggest a finesse and solidity which was not real. Veneer also allowed for 'variations', such as mock stone and brick work, timber cladding and stucco surfaces, all designed to proffer a sense of individuality to the new homebuilder. By their very nature, these veneers only created the illusion of individuality and ultimately they became a symbol of a flimsy suburban conformism as immortalised in the Malvina Reynolds' classic of 1963 sung by Peter Seeger, Little Boxes:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.1

The greatness of Arkley's work, especially a monumental example such as Spray Veneer, resides not just in his message or narrative about suburbia but also with his chosen medium of the air gun. His use of spray is the knockout punch in the paradigm. Spray paint is the veneer of the art world replete with all of its connotations of custom painting and commercial sign writing and which has now been so cleverly adapted to represent the avant-garde, non-conformism, vandalism and street art. There is a type of 'tackiness' or mass culture element to its characteristic. The spraygun conjures up a lavish repertoire of stock images, customised and exaggerated for each customer. It alludes to fanciful panel van illustrations of sunsets and bikini clad women, devils and fire balls to cast the illusion that a car is so much more than an engine and duco. Spray paint functions just like veneer in the housing estate.

Not only did Arkley capitalise on its look as a medium, it also allowed him to use a palette so outlandish, saturated and psychedelic that his visions were automatically charged. As Timothy Morrell observes, 'Howard Arkley's paintings turn the Australian dream into an hallucination.'2

Of almost equal consideration is the scale of the works and what that signifies. Spray Veneer comes from a series of works, which had its genesis in a Tolarno Galleries show in 1988, 'Recent Paintings: Houses and Homes' followed by 'Blue Chip Instant Decorator: A Room' in collaboration with Juan Davila in 1991. The project emerged fully formed in 'The Pointillist Suburb Series' again at Tolarno Galleries in 1994, where Spray Veneer was acquired by its present owner. The works in this group of house and home paintings are largely of a uniform size (203.0 x 153.0 cm) and appear to replicate the scale and dimension of the typical real estate sales board erected outside properties to spruik a home's infinite, transformative qualities to prospective home owners. In these advertisements, there is a sense of gilding the lily and enhancing a home's features, a sense of scaling up a property to lure in the market. Arkley's neon palette and juxtaposed colours and mixed up patterns takes this trait and amplifies it beyond recognition taking the ordinary and everyday and transforming it into the fantastical and theatrical.

When Spray Veneer was selected to be exhibited at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999 it was one of a group of panels painted between 1994 and 1999, all of which were mostly of a uniform size and scale, including the 17 panelled work Fabricated Rooms, 1997-99, Light and Bright, 1994, Mosaic Entrance, 1994, Indoors - Outdoors, 1994, Housemorphics, 1996 (Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art, Perth), Floriated Residence, 1994, Actual Fractural, 1994 and Theatrical Facade, 1996 (Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra). The effect of these 'house' panels when exhibited at Venice was explosive. The entire Biennale precinct situated in the giardini appears like a great theatre set, the ultimate cultural 'home show' of all nations. The Philip Cox designed Australian Pavilion itself is the very model of the modern Australian house and to exhibit such an overblown narrative on Australian domestic life in such a context intensified the underlying concept and lent a great sense of theatrical irony to the entire Arkley Biennale project. Of course The Home Show was not a new site specific body of work for the 1999 Biennale and instead had its genesis as early as 1986. Arkley's own notebooks from that period shed great light on his intentions before he even picked up the spray gun. He writes:

'Start new painting October 1986
1st idea " suburban street scape
Six different style houses on independent shaped canvas
That work as one work also
May be standard height around 6 ft
Different colour & style skys [sic] for start
2nd series
Pattern texture image
Suburban interior
More abstract
Try panel idea Ref Rosenquist F 11 [sic]
Working titles Wraparound painting...
Suburban streetscape...

There was no chance of the works looking 'too domestic' when they were made, least of all when they were all finally brought back together and assembled at the Biennale. As Marco Livingstone observed of this historic installation in the Biennale catalogue, 'The precision of his observations ... acts as a springboard for a heightened sensual and pictorial experience, born of fantasy, daydreaming and escapism: artificially induced paradise as seductive and magical as the one imagined by John Lennon in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", in which "a girl with kaleidoscope eyes" wanders among tangerine trees and marmalade skies.'4

1. Reynolds, M., Little Boxes, RCA Records, 1962, first performed by Pete Seeger, 1963
2. Morrell, T., 'Howard Arkley: The Home Show', in Howard Arkley: The Home Show, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney, 1999, p. 14
3. Gregory, J., Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of Howard Arkley, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 2006, p. 118
4. Livingstone, M., 'Some Kinds of Love; Howard Arkley's Urban Suburban Environment', in Howard Arkley: The Home Show, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney, 1999, p. 8