Hyper­real beauty

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Sasha Gr­ishin AM, FAHA

In the same year as Michael Zavros was born, 1974, the great Ital­ian writer and philoso­pher, Um­berto Eco, was ex­plor­ing the realm of ‘hy­per­re­al­ity’ in Amer­ica. This ex­plo­ration was pub­lished the fol­low­ing year in a land­mark es­say, Trav­els in Hy­per­re­al­ity. The world of hy­per­re­al­ity, which Eco de­scribes, is the world of the ‘ab­so­lute fake’, where the im­i­ta­tions not only re­pro­duce re­al­ity, but im­prove on it, and al­though the imag­i­na­tion de­mands ‘the real thing’, it ap­pears that the only way to achieve this is to fab­ri­cate the ‘ab­so­lute fake’. In Eco’s pil­grim­age to Amer­ica, he de­scribes the cre­ation of fake his­tory, fake art, fake na­ture and fake cities, such as Dis­ney­land and Dis­ney World, where every­thing ap­pears brighter, more colour­ful, larger and more ap­peal­ing. In con­trast, re­al­ity it­self seems slightly dis­ap­point­ing.

It has be­come a facet of the mod­ern con­di­tion to pre­fer the hyper­real to the real. For in­stance, the con­sumer on many oc­ca­sions will find mer­chan­dis­ing in an art mu­seum gift shop is prefer­able to the ac­tual art­work from which the mer­chan­dise is de­rived. There is dis­ap­point­ment if some­thing is not colour sat­u­rated, su­per-sized and com­pletely de­void of the flaws of na­ture. Zavros spent his child­hood and for­ma­tive years on the Gold Coast, near what many Aus­tralians re­gard as the cap­i­tal of the ar­ti­fi­cial plas­tic ve­neer of Aus­tralia, the hyper­real Surfers Par­adise.

In Plato’s Sym­po­sium the con­cept of beauty, or ‘kal­los’ in Greek, is ar­tic­u­lated and given its first de­fin­i­tive read­ing. Plato ar­gues that ‘love’ is sim­ply a de­sire for some­thing which the lover does not pos­sess, but a higher form of love is the de­sire for beauty (to kal­los), which is an el­e­vated state of be­ing re­sid­ing be­tween hu­man ig­no­rance on earth and divine wis­dom in the ce­les­tial sphere. In this sense, love is a pow­er­ful de­sire, which spurs our as­cent to ab­so­lute beauty that is in the realm of the divine. It is this meta­phys­i­cal con­cept of beauty es­tab­lished by Plato, that has haunted the Euro­pean imag­i­na­tion and has been cen­tral to the dis­cus­sion of aes­thet­ics in the west­ern tra­di­tion of representational arts. Plato him­self was not a great sup­porter of the visual arts be­cause he felt that the artist, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, was a copy­ist of na­ture and that na­ture it­self was only a copy of the per­fect form which could ex­ist only as an idea and was not em­bod­ied in a ma­te­rial shape. In this way, beauty, which ex­isted in art, was thrice re­moved from ideal beauty. In hy­per­re­al­ity, the mimetic de­sire to cap­ture ex­actly every sin­gle de­tail found in the model be­fore the artist, is mar­ried with the po­ten­tial to im­prove on the model and to beau­tify the beauty en­coun­tered in re­al­ity. It is this sense of hyper­real beauty, which char­ac­terises the re­cent work of Zavros, it has ‘the look’ of some­thing out of the or­di­nary, a beauty which is more per­fect than that com­monly en­coun­tered on earth.

Zavros was born of mixed Greek and Ir­ish parent­age into a fam­ily of five chil­dren with four sis­ters as sib­lings. He re­counts, “my fa­ther was born in Cyprus in 1949 in a small moun­tain vil­lage called Agros. His fam­ily came here in 1955 and set­tled in North Queens­land. There wasn’t much mu­sic in our home, apart from Neil Di­a­mond, un­til my four sis­ters and I were old enough to play our own. There was no art, and few books. My oil paint­ing lessons from age ten soon had our walls cov­ered in land­scape, seas­cape, flo­ral or clown paint­ings. Clowns were big in the 1980s. I was al­ways en­tre­pre­neur­ial and sold my work from an early age. This in­cluded hand painted t-shirts (also big in the 1980s) and chalk pas­tel draw­ings of Aus­tralian birds which I’d sell in lo­cal cafés.”

Zavros was in­tro­duced to the world of elite con­sumerism at an early age through the long­ing eyes of his fa­ther. One of the artist’s favourite mem­o­ries of his child­hood was go­ing out with his fa­ther. “When I was lit­tle, my dad would of­ten say ‘let’s go for a drive’. The aim of this I as­sumed was to be in the car and to be on the road. It was al­ways just he and I at night, up­front in the red and white van. We’d in­evitably end up at Gold Coast’s Mercedes-benz deal­er­ship. Look­ing at the cars made my fa­ther happy. Well into my teens it seemed com- pletely com­mon­place to find my­self stand­ing in a gar­den look­ing through the great glass win­dows at these gleam­ing spot lit Mercs. We’d as­sess the var­i­ous new colours and mod­els. We’d iso­late the best one. This would be some grand S- Class sa­loon pos­si­bly el­e­vated or re­volv­ing on its own stage. Even at a young age, I had an inkling of what these cars ‘meant’ and what sta­tus or so­cial hi­er­ar­chy was. Later I would learn the terms ‘new money’ or ‘old money’ or ‘mi­grant ma­te­ri­al­ism’. Look­ing at these cars and later, my draw­ings of them, my fa­ther and I could speak with ease and an en­thu­si­asm that ex­tended to lit­tle else. He sought his re­flec­tion in those mir­rored sur­faces and I sought mine in him. And look­ing at the cars made me happy.” Think­ing about the role of lux­ury in his art he noted “I have of­ten sus­pected that the rea­son peo­ple are drawn to lux­ury is less about sta­tus and more the crav­ing of an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. We are all con­sumers—we crave the au­then­tic­ity of lux­ury be­cause it im­plies value and longevity—which is what paint­ing of­fers— longevity.”

Zavros stud­ied at the Queens­land Col­lege of the Arts, where he fo­cused on print­mak­ing, es­pe­cially lithog­ra­phy. “I didn’t paint at all at art school. I started paint­ing a few years af­ter I grad­u­ated, firstly with a brief busi­ness paint­ing trompe l’oeil com­mer­cially, and then I slowly be­gan mak­ing my own work. I could al­ways draw and re­al­is­ti­cally rep­re­sent what was in front of me and en­joyed cap­tur­ing mi­nor de­tails. Work­ing from pho­tog­ra­phy and tak­ing steps to bet­ter mimic the pho­to­graphic mark just seemed the most log­i­cal thing to do.”

“I en­joy the para­dox­i­cal no­tion that a beau­ti­ful, de­sir­able and ex­pen­sive thing be­comes a beau­ti­ful, de­sir­able and ex­pen­sive paint­ing of a beau­ti­ful, de­sir­able ex­pen­sive thing. I think some­times I’m a clas­sic value adder, I like ma­nip­u­lat­ing ideas about com­mod­ity and value within the work it­self, not just via sub­ject mat­ter but via tech­nique and aes­thetic, the cool se­duc­tive glossy world of com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing.” He con­tin­ues, “In my re­cent pho­to­graph Home­work, my daugh­ters Phoebe and Olympia are com­plet­ing theirs in the back­seat of a Rolls Royce, a set­ting re­plete with im­plicit val­ues of wealth, el­e­gance and pres­tige. I em­ployed a com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher to shoot Home­work a mas­sive, crys­tal clear, com­mer­cial grade pho­to­graph to vis­ually mar­ket these val­ues to the viewer.”

Zavros’s paint­ings of the hyper­real in re­cent years have been sup­ple­mented by pho­to­graphs and per­for­mances; for him the ex­act­ing pho­to­re­al­ist tech­nique is some sort of touch­stone on au­then­tic­ity. Much of his ear­lier work was de­rived from found im­agery that he would ren­der in a pain­stak­ing man­ner as ex­actly and as lov­ingly as he could. Artists, such as Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, pre­sented them­selves as am­ple source ma­te­rial for reap­pro­pri­at­ing pop­u­lar cul­ture, whilst Andy Warhol in­spired with his abil­ity to hold a mir­ror to con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety and in­turn pro­vide in­ci­sive com­men­tary. In Zavros’ own work, there is no short­age of eye candy, at­trac­tive lures and a shiny ve­neer that is of­ten mis­judged for noth­ing more than pure de­sign. How­ever be­yond this cel­e­bra­tion of hyper­real beauty, his paint­ings of de­sir­able fash­ion ac­ces­sories, cel­e­brated brand names and the per­fect ap­peal of mod­els, there is loaded im­agery which can be in­ter­preted on a num­ber of dif­fer­ent lev­els.

When I asked him to char­ac­terise some of the more re­cent de­vel­op­ments in his art, Zavros re­sponds, “work­ing from found im­agery, the cre­ative mo­ment for me was im­me­di­ate, but care­ful and de­ci­sive, and the paint­ing was just process. Now the cre­ative mo­ment lasts days or weeks be­fore I might com­mence paint­ing and the paint­ings now take on the ap­pear­ance of a doc­u­men­ta­tion of a per­for­mance. The ac­tual act of paint­ing is the easy part for me. Re­cent pho­to­graphic works and a per­for­mance at the 2014 Melbourne Art Fair vernissage have ex­tended that cre­ative mo­ment even fur­ther and con­tracted the phys­i­cal process, in both in­stances I didn’t take part in the tak­ing of the pho­to­graph or per­form­ing in the per­for­mance, but be­came more a cre­ative direc­tor of the process.”

Zavros’s art has ‘the look’ and cel­e­brates a hyper­real beauty, like an elite brand, some­thing which ap­pears tan­gi­ble, but for­ever slightly out of reach. The artist ap­pears to hide be­hind the ve­neer of his cre­ations. As in Andy Warhol’s fa­mous glib apho­rism: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the sur­face of my paint­ings and films and me and there I am. There’s noth­ing be­hind it.” In both Warhol and Zavros the sur­face is a beau­ti­ful and el­e­gant façade which hides poignant loaded im­ages of de­sire. The irony in Zavros’s prac­tice lies in the ten­sion he cre­ates in his paint­ings. “Paint­ing is all about the hand, ar­ti­san­ship— paint­ing is ar­ti­sanal— it is the ul­ti­mate au­then­tic ges­ture and yet I seek to deny this via those pol­ished brush­less sur­faces.”

Im­age Plate Plate 01. Chest/etro, 2014. Char­coal on pa­per, 86x122cm. Pri­vate col­lec­tion. Courtesy of the artist and Statk­white, Auck­land.

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