Monday, April 9, 2007

The Scientists + Howard Arkley

The Scientists rocked my socks on Saturday night - I got my three favourite songs (Set It On Fire, Swampland, This Is My Happy Hour) plus an impressive, blistering We Had Love. Quite a contrast from the last time I saw Kim Salmon, as part of The Darling Downs (with Ron Peno of Died Pretty)... they seemed to have acquired a non-original drummer who, despite her chissenefrega air, gave the music the irresistible tribal repetition which it works on - and Salmon himself was in fine form both as vocalist and guitarist.

I also headed to the Howard Arkley exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today. Arkley's work was panned by John McDonald in this weekend's Spectrum for being formally awful (Arkley claimed that there was no irony or kitsch present in his work, either in his choice of subject or colour) - but I thought there was more to understand here, particularly considering that, since the death of the author, we needn't be guided by the way the artist intended her/his work to be read (and Arkley sounds like a typical, if amusing, tortured artist - McDonald retails the story of how, at the only major exhibition of his work during his lifetime, he signed catalogues at $25 a pop til he had enough for a fix, and promptly disappeared. He would, of course, die of an overdose).

I love Arkley's day-glo colours, his hyper-real airbrushed depictions of suburbia with their vague air of the sinister and the contrast between the airbrushing, which gives them an opacity belying the fact that they're painted on canvas, and the sharp relief of the wallpaper and pop art patterns he uses, so reminiscent of your auntie's parlour and of Liechtenstein (and there is a derivative element here, which doesn't necessarily undercut the work, to my mind at least). The earlier works, and those from just before his death in 1999, don't necessarily have the strength of the classic period, although there's a beautifully day-glo picture of the junkie's shot, so different to the usual and understandable darkness in which the subject is wreathed, and a striking portrait of Nick Cave... and I'm always interested to see suburbia taken as an ambiguous subject, without the old cliche of suburban utopia or the new cliche of the darkness that utopia hides (in the Australian context we might also think, as McDonald did, of John Brack) - one wonders whether Arkley cunningly anticipated the shiny consumer dream of the McMansion now being realised everywhere at such great cost.

Perhaps, also, this work, which transforms the physical moments of suburbia into something garishly gorgeous is speaking to me at the moment for other reasons - the joy that I'm taking in suburban moments, and in colour, the vivid green of bus-stop weeds, the electric artificiality of traffic lights, the oilslick purples and greens on the wing of the crested pigeons which my mother feeds on her balcony. And this is something which I've painstakingly created myself over the past months; but which also owes a debt to another presence, of which I won't mention anything more here, except to say thank you.

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