|BLUE CHIP INSTANT
Howard Arkley & Juan Davila
Howard Arkley & Juan
|Since the late eighties Juan Davila and Howard Arkley
have been engaged in an extensive collaborative
partnership that has been taking place almost
imperceptibly in the gap between their individual
oeuvres. In 1991, at Tolarno Galleries in South Yarra,
the evidence of this project surfaced for the first time
in a back room installation titled Blue Chip Instant
Decorator. Arkley and Davila continued to modify this
work as it was exhibited again briefly in Melbourne and
Sydney before being put into storage. They still exchange
ideas with the intention of further collaborations but Blue
Chip Instant Decorator remains the only manifestation
of a remarkable partnership between two of Australia's
most prominent painters.
The significance of Blue Chip Instant Decorator is immediately evident in the way that Arkley and Davila have reinvented the concept of "collaboration". Rather than evoking the cosy pluralism of group projects from the seventies, or the dry hybridity of multiple-author works from the eighties, their exchange has been full of surprises and false starts. It is as if they were continually negotiating temporal personae in a virtual environment or hyper-textual novel. Their collaboration has, in effect, functioned like the stage set for a comedy of misadventure.
|Despite the obvious formal differences between the
work of Arkley and Davila, they share a certain ethic of
open-ended experimentation. In Arkley's work this is
apparent in the fuzzy contours that zig-zag, glide and
spiral across the canvas, spreading out a zone of
indetermination between the flat planes of colour and the
floating airbrushed line. Davila, on the other hand,
improvises to the disjunctive rhythm of collage and
quotation, assembling a network of experimental and
temporal connections. The success of their collaboration
undoubtedly owes something to how they offer each other
different ways of realising this ethic of
experimentation. Traversing one another like the woof and
warp of a garish new fabric, they recreate themselves in
each other's conceptual gaps. As Davila explains, it is a
battle between two pictorial systems: "Howard does
not touch the canvas whereas I paint in a dirty tactile
way. So the question is how to position two pictorial
systems once you've set up a mutual image. Each hand
proceeds in its own way."
For both artists, the incentive to collaborate was the possibility of finding a counterpoint that would give something new to their work and take it in a different direction. This is particularly obvious in Davila's work, where decorative screens and ornament have become an important feature of his solo shows since beginning the collaboration. "Juan had used patterning in the past," Arkley reflects ironically, "but this project really kicked it along. I set it up thinking that I would get a lot out of it, but it turned out differently."
|The unpredictable nature of the exchange becomes
apparent when they are asked to explain the origins of
the project, because in effect there are no origins.
Everything happened in-between.
|Blue Chip Instant Decorator occupies a pivotal
place in the oeuvres of these two artists, but its
significance also extends to the broader currents in
contemporary Australian art. Arkley and Davila showed
work together for the first time in the renown
"Popism" exhibition of 1981, curated by Paul
Taylor at the National Gallery of Victoria. This event
harnessed the concerns of a new generation of Australian
artists and indexed a conceptual shift into problems
framed by Postmodernism and Post-colonialism. Like most
of the artists in this exhibition, Arkley and Davila take
up provincial perspectives on popular art and culture,
testifying to the displacement and complication of
identity at the ends of the world. But fifteen years
later these issues have become institutional cliches of
Australian art, issues which are complicit with our
government's "Pacific rim" policies on trade,
arts and tourism. What once seemed politically subversive
is now a necessary criteria for inclusion in most survey
show of Australian art.
The theme of interior decoration in Blue Chip Instant Decorator is quite literally the vehicle for parodying the commercial ends to which Postmodern and Post-colonial debates have been turned over the past decade. The tensions between Arkley's cool stylisation of suburban dreamscapes, and Davila's purulent pop imagery from non-Western contexts, run like fault lines across the parochial domestic scenes in the paintings. Blue Chip Instant Decorator provides a timely critique of the mix and match exotica that inadvertently persists in Post-colonial aesthetics. As Juan explains:
Blue Chip Instant Decorator is more than a curious art object pieced together in Arkley and Davila's spare time. It poses important problems for the two artists and for Australian art; problems that could perhaps only be developed in the margins of their careers, in an interval of trust and friendship. As such it is a singular event, a remarkable coordinate in the matrix of contemporary art.
(Excerpt from a forthcoming Tolarno Galleries publication)