The Australian - Wish Magazine - - AIA AWARDS 2017 - STORY MITCHELL OAK­LEY SMITH

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)

Man (2009)

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