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.