OBJECTS OF DESIRE
AUSTRALIAN ARTIST MICHAEL ZAVROS PAINTS BEAUTIFUL THINGS, LUXURY ITEMS HE ONCE COVETED FROM AFAR. BUT LIKE A MODERN VANITAS, EACH HYPER-REAL PAINTING QUESTIONS OUR PREOCCUPATION WITH SURFACES.
Throughout history, art has challenged us with different ways of looking. In retrospect, of course, many advancements that were shocking at the time now seem quaint. But Jackson Pollock’s radical way of dripping paint on to a canvas, or Lucian Freud’s fleshy showcase of the nude, or Picasso’s flattening and dehumanisation of the human form, have each pointed to a new way forward for artists.
Painter and sculptor Michael Zavros chooses to shock in far more subtle ways. Even as, throughout his career, his contemporaries have grappled with experimental but arguably more fraught mediums, such as video and sound installation, Zavros has largely held true to traditional forms, perfecting the art of oil painting and charcoal drawing developed thousands of years ago. And yet as Nick Mitzevich, the forward-thinking director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, says, “Michael Zavros messes with our head in many ways.”
At the gallery-hosted Adelaide Biennial early last year, Zavros presented a new work, The Phoenix, which fetched $165,000 and became part of AGSA’s permanent collection with thanks to the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation. Having visited the gallery’s decorative arts department, the artist choose to make a painting based on a composition of some of its most prized objects, including Paul Storr and John Flaxman’s Dessert stand and Henry Steiner’s Adelaide Hunt Club Cup. The resultant painting recalls the European tradition of stilllife – Zavros’ background is Greek, and Greek history and culture regularly inform his broader practice – but in presenting its viewer with recognisable tropes, both in form and subject matter, Zavros achieves the greatest trick of all. “[It’s] so realistic that, like Zeuxis grapes, they fool the viewer’s eye and remind us that the act of painting is in fact an act of deception,” says Mitzevich, himself, too, from a Greek background.
But it’s not just the technical quality of the work, the verisimilitude that the artist achieves that beggars belief (although viewers will regularly stop to read the fine print, believing his handiwork to be in fact a digitally rendered photograph). Instead, it’s the compositions of his objects – an ice cream sundae crafted from hydrangeas, a shark fin from a stack of white roses, a jellyfish from fresh lilies and cut-glass crystal – that challenge us to look closer, to examine these objects in
greater depth. The paintings, in essence, are merely the documentation of a performance by Zavros. “There is this interplay between life and art in my work,” he says. “Whereas in the past I was working from found images, pictures from luxury magazines, now [I’m becoming] a creative director of something, and then painting it, and I’ve had to learn to trust that creative process.” Subtle layers of meaning keep viewers returning again and again. Says Mitzevich: “Zavros defies the brush, the naked eye and even art history to remind us that painting is far from dead and forgotten.”
Many, it would seem, agree. While the fortunes of experimental forms in the art world have largely waned, painting, sculpture and drawing – those mediums sometimes considered quaint in their classicism – have experienced a revival. Indeed, in 2015 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a divisive show, entitled The Forever Now, in which it posited that painting as an art form had not just returned (it was the museum’s first show dedicated to the form since 1984) but was healthier and more diverse than ever. Often offering something more tactile, more nuanced, and imbued – quite literally – with the touch of the artist’s hand, painting seems to speak to the senses in a digital image-saturated era. That some of Australia’s most revered and collectible contemporary artists – Ben Quilty, Del Kathryn Barton, Daniel Boyd, the late Adam Cullen, eX de Medici and Zavros among them – are all primarily painters says something of the way art’s values have shifted since the turn of the millennium.
But where experimental forms rely on artistic intent, painting and other traditional forms are driven by physicality and skill. It takes time, in other words, to craft the art. And Zavros is, more than anything else, a dedicated practitioner. He lives, far from the luxury world his work inhabits, in Chandler in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. He and his family – wife Alison Kubler and three children, Phoebe, 11, Olympia, 9, and Leo, 5 – live on a 3ha property replete with roaming chickens, surrounded by a mass of unpopulated bushland. It’s here, in a vast, purpose-built studio on the property, that you’ll find Zavros almost every day of the year, tinkering away at a canvas, dressed in board shorts and Crocs; a place where, as in his images, time evaporates between brushstrokes. As Kubler, an art curator and writer, says: “Mike is in his studio every minute of the day. For him there’s no distinction between a work day and the weekend. It’ll get to Sunday
and I’ll have to go down there [to the studio] and say, ‘No, it’s Sunday, we’re going out for a few hours’”.
The pair met some 23 years ago, Zavros then a young Queensland College of Art student, and Kubler an art history graduate. The artist regularly paints his children, especially his eldest daughter, whom he sees as an extension of his own person, and the majority of his works have an autobiographical element to them. Indeed, a walk through the Zavros family home is to observe the objects – the taxidermied animals, the leather Chesterfield sofas, the crystal vases – that take pride of place on his canvas.
In the earlier years Zavros’ work was preoccupied with a certain aspiration for luxury – a boy from the Gold Coast looking in – with drawings of charcoal-onpaper drawings of Versailles, Louis Vuitton sunglasses, Salvatore Ferragamo leather shoes and Milanese boutique interiors that questioned our fraught relationship with luxury goods as much as they lovingly rendered them. But his work has evolved and grown along with his income. As he says, “My work is very much reflective of a hyper-awareness of who I am and where I come from. My work speaks simultaneously about a luxury that can be sourced in material goods and the art-object in which they are showcased.”
His skill has been recognised in the local and international markets, with prizes such as the inaugural Bulgari Art Award and the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize to his name, as well as a raft of successful commercial shows. This has allowed Zavros to more fully engage with the world he once observed and painted from a distance, and has imbued his work with a newfound criticality. “I’m seduced by the promise of an aesthetic life obtained through the acquisition of aesthetic objects, but having the means to physically own the things I used to lust after and paint does change my view. In some ways, it really accelerates the play between life and art, and I think I’m able to take a more nuanced view of those things. I’m seldom made truly happy by the acquisition of a thing.” His series of colourfully printed silk Gucci and Versace ties, for example, suggest poised cobras, as dangerous as they are alluring; he inserts a set of gym equipment into his classical rendering of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, suggesting our vanity and obsession with beauty; his daughter, Phoebe, models a pair of Tom Ford sunglasses in a classic act of getting dressed up in her mother’s belongings, but at the sides, Zavros nudges us to question luxury culture’s obsession with youth.
In the past year alone, Zavros has had three major works acquired or commissioned by state institutions, with his painting Bad Dad finding a home at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, through its foundation’s funding appeal, the Art Gallery of South Australia retaining The Phoenix following its display as part of the 2016 Adelaide Biennial Magic Object, and his recent portrait of Quentin Bryce unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. Other highlights of his 2016 success include the winning of the prestigious Mosman Art Prize with a painting of Phoebe wrapped in a Gucci silk scarf, entitled Flora. These accolades were coupled with solo exhibitions, both of which sold out, at Los Angeles Contemporary and Philip Bacon Galleries.
At his recent solo survey exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery, Magic Mike, Zavros once again returned to his interest in the body beautiful, showing more than a decade of painting, drawing, photography and film, drawn from public and private collections. The exhibition’s title referenced the virtuoso realism of his painting, but also the film about a group of buff male adult dancers, in which Channing Tatum plays the contemporary pop culture equivalent of Adonis, the male form perfected. Key works in the exhibition included The Sunbather (in which, in an ode to David Hockney and the Greek legend Narcissus, Zavros portrays himself laying naked beside a pool, admiring his image in its reflection) and The new Round Room (the Versailles gym painting, for which he won the Bulgari Art Award). “I’ve long explored male beauty as a currency, and this [exhibition] is a way of tying together so many threads in my work, touching on ideas about vanity and narcissism,” says Zavros.
Further exploring the collective contemporary culture of body obsession, the artist commissioned a series of performances within the gallery in which a “performer” completes a gym routine in front of the artworks, the equipment itself functioning as a sculpture when not in use, creating a larger tableau of vanitas and serving as a comment on the sociocultural phenomenon of gym culture; it just happens that Newcastle boasts the highest number of gyms per capita in Australia.
“Luxury interests me personally in the same way that so many artists and designers are drawn to something that is decadent, artisanal and bespoke,” he says. “I guess I think of myself as an aesthete. I love to look at beautiful things. Sometimes I’ll find myself wasting time looking at something I’m working on, seduced by this beautiful object emerging in paint, and that’s part of my whole [modus operandi] in the first place.” W A new book, Michael Zavros, will be published this month by Manuscript.
“Having the means to physically own the things I used to lust after and paint does change my view.”
Clockwise from above, Bad Dad (2013), Homework (2014), Toucan (2016), The New Round Room (2012), Flora (2016), The Phoenix (2015)