FELONY, 1987

Important Australian + International Fine Art
22 November 2023


(1951 - 1999)
FELONY, 1987

synthetic polymer paint on canvas

160.0 x 120.0 cm

signed verso: Howard Arkley
signed, dated and inscribed with title verso: Howard Arkley / Felony / 1987

AU$150,000 – $250,000

Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne (label attached verso)
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above c.1987


Howard Arkley: Suburban urban messages, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2 – 19 September 1987, cat. 10
Howard Arkley, Anima Gallery, Adelaide, October – November 1987, cat. 3
Howard Arkley, Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, 18 October – 30 November 1991, cat. 63
Howard Arkley: The Retrospective, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 17 November 2006 – 25 February 2007 and touring (label attached verso, erroneously catalogued as ‘Felony, 1983’)


Duncan, J (ed.), Howard Arkley, Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, 1991, p. 27 (illus.)
Crawford, A., & Edgar, R., Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997, pp. 63, 65 (illus. erroneously catalogued as ‘Felony, 1983’)
Howard Arkley Online Catalogue Raisonné: [https://www.arkleyworks.com/blog/2009/11/19/felony-1987/] (accessed 24/10/23)

Catalogue text

In 1986, Howard Arkley painted one of his most confronting and realistic images, The Ritual, which depicted a figure about to insert a needle into an extended, torniquet-ed arm. Whether or not the subject matter reflected the artist’s own drug use at the time is now a moot point, but the painting was undeniably part of a small group of images from the 1980s which sought inspiration from the darker side of life and the harsh realities of inner urban living. This group includes Suicide, 1983; Ever Feel Like Drowning, 1987; and Felony, 1987 – which is a second version of a painting of the same title, originally produced in 1983.1
In 1981, Arkley moved from Chapel Street, Prahran to St Kilda, which was a haven of the punk and alternative music scenes and home to now iconic venues like the Crystal Ballroom. Arkley and his then-wife, artist Elizabeth Gower, had been introduced to punk in 1977 by New York-based Australian artist, Denise Green, who sent the pair to CBGBs during Arkley’s first trip to New York.2 Arkley continued to seek out punk gigs during their travels abroad, drawing influence from the unexpected nature of this wild new world:
‘He had little to say about the music as such and was struck primarily by the mood of events, the gritty urban environment and the air of violence and threat. Punk was about the scene and the style. It represented mean streets, edgy behaviour and tight-knit, energetic subcultures.’3
The source image for Felony is a copy of the Boys Own Annual from the early 1950s, which was held in Arkley’s personal collection.4 When combined with the artist’s punk sensibility and high-keyed maximalist style however, these rather tame beginnings are transformed into a painting full of movement and potential threat – both that of being robbed, and of the felon being caught. With its tilting planes and competing decorative surfaces – the fluttering curtain, the brick wall, and the strange, cactus-like doodle forms just within the thief’s grasp – nothing sits still, creating a sense of tension and unease that belies the painting’s comic book style and Pop Art origins. Yet unlike the narrative journey of the comic book, where the action progresses from one gridded image to another, Arkley’s work is a singular frame, suspended in time and space without resolution.
The artist’s encounter with the work’s source as an image in reproduction was to increasingly influence his working method, and in turn, the way he both conceptualised and thought about his practice. Arkley emphasised the remove that the airbrush provided and celebrated the fact that his works weren’t handmade. Indeed, he saw his paintings as a form of ‘second-degree culture’ and wanted them to look ‘false’.5 As he said:
‘I want my work to look like a reproduction of a painting, not be a painting. I want it to look like it was a slide or a book. I want it to look like the paintings that educated me, and I saw them in books and magazines and slides etc. I didn’t want any great globules of paint running down because in a book they don’t have that, they’re nice and flat and shiny.’6
Yet despite these intentions, there is, ironically, only one Howard Arkley, and in his distinctive subject matter and working methods he stands alone.
1. The Ritual, 1986 was controversially acquired by the State Library of Victoria in 1988. For images of these works see: https://www.arkleyworks.com/blog/2009/11/19/happenstance-1987/ 
2. McAuliffe, C., ‘Raw Power Meets Electronic Music Sounds: Howard Arkley and Popular Music’ in Fitzpatrick, A. & Lynn, V., Howard Arkley and Friends, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, 2015, p. 32. CBGBs is a small bar on the Bowery in New York, largely regarded as the birthplace of punk in the United States. In the 1970s it was an important venue for punk and new wave bands such as the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Misfits, Television, Patti Smith Group, The Dead Boys, The Dictators and The Cramps.
3. ibid.
4. Crawford, A., Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, p. 65
5. Preston, E., Not Just a Suburban Boy, Duffy & Snellgrove, Potts Point, 2002, p. 224, cited in ‘Howard Arkley: Learning Resources’, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/school_resource/howard-arkley/ (accessed 24 October 2023)
6. Wyzenbeek, A. (dir.), Howard’s Way, 1999, ABC TV Arts, 24 mins, excerpt at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YByGawnhx7E (accessed 24 October 2023)