The Age Saturday 24 July 1999 Arkley: the triumph and the tragedy By GABRIELLA COSLOVICH and RAYMOND GILL Melbourne artist Howard Arkley had everything to live for - he was on the brink of international recognition and had just married his long-time girlfriend Alison Burton last Thursday night in Las Vegas after a Hunter S. Thompson-style dash across the Mojave Desert in a convertible. After a whirlwind two months enjoying huge success representing Australia at the Venice Biennale and a sell-out show in Los Angeles, the couple returned home on Tuesday. ``He had never been happier,'' said Arkley's friend and biographer Ashley Crawford. Two days later, Arkley was dead of a heroin overdose. Ms Burton found her husband's body about 6am on Thursday in his studio, several blocks from their Oakleigh home. Yesterday, as the Australian art world absorbed the news, those who loved him - and there are many - are asking how a man who looked set for a glittering future could have allowed himself to risk it all. Only a week before, buoyed by his phenomenal international success, which had resulted in a number of major commissions, Arkley and Ms Burton fulfilled one of the artist's long-held dreams, to marry in Las Vegas. They arrived late on Thursday night, and after hiring a white limousine went in search of a kitsch chapel, to be married by an Elvis impersonator. Unable to find one, they settled for a neon-lit wedding chapel just before midnight, and were the last couple to be married that day. What started as a spirited, irreverent affair unexpectedly developed into a moving ceremony as the couple took their vows, with Arkley's friend Callum Morton as witness. The success and happiness of the last two months has made Arkley's sudden death all the more tragic for his many friends in the Australian art scene. In what is often described as a ``bitchy'' industry, Arkley was a much loved larrikin, an artist who partied hard but could still passionately and articulately discuss his work even after one or two bottles of his preferred drop - luke-warm, cheap champagne. Kalli Rolfe, until recently an associate director at Jan Minchin's Tolarno Galleries, the artist's Melbourne dealer, said that no one ever had a negative word to say about Arkley. ``No one was jealous of Howard's recent success; everyone was celebrating it. He was just so loved,'' said Ms Rolfe. Like his paintings, which effortlessly combined a pop sensibility with a deeper examination of suburban life, Arkley was a larger-than-life figure with a great sense of enthusiasm and fun, but also an artist who was extremely rigorous, dedicated and critical of his work. Those close to him knew about Arkley's history of heroin use, but most believed he had not used it for at least eight months. Arkley was not proud about using heroin and rarely spoke of it to friends. He despised the glamorisation of drugs in the arts and music world and, according to Crawford, did not use them to help him work. Who knows why Arkley decided to use heroin in the early hours of Thursday. Certainly those who had been overseas with him during the past two months had seen no evidence of drug use. Ms Lisa Warrener, a friend, and one of the organisers of his Venice show, said that while she was with Arkley in Venice in June there was no suggestion of drug use. ``In fact, he talked about his struggle with it. As far as I know he had been clean for at least eight months. My impression was that it was something that was now in his past.'' After the success of Venice, Arkley and Ms Burton travelled to London to visit friend Nick Cave and artist Tony Clark. They moved on to Los Angeles for his debut American show and stayed at the home of his Los Angeles art dealer, expatriate Australian Ms Karyn Lovegrove, and her music producer husband in the Hollywood Hills. ``He loved LA. Howard was in great, healthy, sparkling form,'' said Ms Lovegrove. ``We had an amazing party celebrating his success. Everything was going right. He and Alison adored one another and were so in love. You can't imagine how perfect everything was.'' Despite his disciplined attitude to work, Arkley's close friends always worried about him falling back on to drugs. ``We were all fearful,'' says a friend who declined to be named. ``He would say not to worry because he had been doing it for such a long time that he didn't think he was taking a risk.'' On Wednesday, Arkley had planned to go drinking with Ashley Crawford, but later cancelled because he was jet-lagged. His wife, meanwhile, thought he had gone out with Crawford. Unable to sleep in the early hours of Thursday, Ms Burton went to Arkley's studio where she found her husband. Arkley's death has cut short the career of a painter who seemed assured of becoming a major international artist. After a 30-year career, Arkley, 48, was just beginning to gain international recognition. Although well recognised in Australia for his vibrant airbrushed depictions of Melbourne suburbia, which can fetch up to $40,000, it was only in the past two months that Arkley was discovered by the rest of the world. ``I have never seen such a reaction to an artist,'' said Ms Lovegrove, who sold all seven works for about $A20,000 each in the Los Angeles show even before it opened. Critics, magazine editors and collectors were lining up to speak to Arkley during the LA show. He received glowing praise in the Los Angeles Times, which said his paintings ``depict the dreams stuff is made of''. Critics compared his fluorescent depictions of freeways, apartments, houses and living rooms to the work of Lichtenstein, Warhol and Hockney. ``There was complete disbelief that someone as accomplished and talented as Howard hadn't been seen before,'' said Ms Lovegrove. Arkley had recently embarked on a number of major commissions, including a major acquisition for the National Gallery of Victoria, a work for the Melbourne Festival on the exterior of the Republic Tower, and a commission for next year's Sydney Festival, which included projecting Arkleyr's Sydney Festival, which included projecting Arkley's suburban images on to the Sydney Opera House. Arkley works are tightly held by collectors and Ms Lara Nicholls, the Australian painting specialist at Sotheby's, yesterday said prices for his work would inevitably rise. The Australian art world was unified yesterday in its grief for the artist who celebrated the Australian suburbs as being at the heart, if not the heart, of the modern Australian consciousness. As Arkley told a Dutch magazine this month: ``The majority of Australians live in suburbs, but they are also cynical and embarrassed about it. They don't see the suburbs as a subject for art, but it's a very good way of life. There's a barbecue in the back yard, and it's safe for children, what's to be embarrassed about?''