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Arkley, Howard - 1994.9

Howard Arkley

Zappo Head 1991
silkscreen and collage on paper
29.5 x 22.5 cm
Donated by Professor Graeme Smith 1994

Howard Arkley (1951–99) was a major Australian artist who forged an art connected with various sub-cultures, pop art, minimal art and everyday décor. His curious eye fused an array of source materials into drawings, collages, paintings and installations that proposed encounters with the world around him. Juxtaposing colour, pattern and appropriated imagery from a variety of sources, Arkley’s work was very much in and of its time and notably ‘hand-made’.

Throughout his career, Arkley kept notebooks that teem with doodles and drawings for larger works. Initially, these playful figurative pictures were afterthoughts that appeared in the margins of ideas for his minimalist black-and-white paintings of the 1970s. However, in 1981, over the course of one long night, Arkley created Primitive, the twenty-panel work on paper, for an exhibition he had to install the next day. This kaleidoscope of imagery released a figurative methodology, where thick black lines formed into faces, heads and comic-book-stylised shapes. During the 1980s, Arkley’s work explored the Australian suburban house. Brightly coloured decorative elements – arabesques, dashes, stripes and dots – adorn both exteriors and interiors. Having observed succulents in the driveways and front gardens of typical suburban Australian homes, Arkley transformed them into a spiky headdress, sporting anamorphic characteristics, so that plant and human became a hybrid force. This hybrid sensibility reached its apotheosis when Arkley exhibited a series of ‘heads’ for the first time in 1990, at Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne. A notebook from the period expresses an outpouring about ‘heads’: ‘Neuropath’, ‘Neurohead’, ‘sorehead’, ‘replace a head’, ‘Rent a head’, ‘oragami [sic] head’, suggesting Arkley was pursuing as many types as possible. He goes on to list ‘portrait ache’, ‘head job’, ‘head attack’, ‘look like a mask’, ‘cut out features’, ‘schematic mask’, ‘look like a house hold head’ and so on.[1] In spite of the diversity, he once described the ‘head’ paintings as self-portraits.[2]

Arkley made Zappo Head in 1987, a major work that became something of an alter-ego for the artist. Zappo Head has its precursor in Arkley’s notebooks from 1977, where it appeared as a skull.(Zappo was also the street name for amphetamines.) Zappo Head is like a mask comprised of various elements – a stylised succulent on the forehead, pierced ears, eyes that pop out and an open mouth. It is part robotic, similar to a tattoo and has obvious references to African and Pacific Islander masks, which had been widely used as visual references in the early twentieth century by artists such as Picasso.

In the work held in the Monash University Collection, the ‘head’ is adorned with a children’s cardboard cut-out animal mask. This mask on top of a mask reflects Arkley’s playful and elusive attitude to identity. The work slips between easy definitions and fixed categories. Arkley’s explorations traverse high art and popular culture; the real world and the imaginary; life and death; private and public. In this work, the transgression from the streetwise Zappo to the innocence of a children’s mask typifies the artist’s interest in slipping between easy definitions and fixed categories. This double masquerade juxtaposes incommensurable elements in order to reveal the many masks at play in our everyday personas.

Victoria Lynn is Director, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria.

[1] Visual diary no. 27, c. 1989, pp.12–13, Howard Arkley Archive, MS 14217, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

[2] Howard Arkley, cited in Virginia Trioli, 'Head Show exhibition is a myth you can take at face value', The Age, 26 October 1990, p.16.