Words: Andrew Frost
Michael Zavros’ art has been remarkably consistent. Since the earliest days of his practice, Zavros has produced paintings and drawings that evoke a sense of glamour, lifestyle and pop cultural significance. There are references to contemporary and historical art and perhaps, on occasion, a knowing wink. The works are, in many ways, orthodox postmodern pieces of art, at once celebrating their influences, yet at the same time embracing doubt and uncertainty. Are the works critical of the artist’s themes, or celebratory? The artist has long avoided making a definitive statement on the intention behind his art.
Sitting ambiguously between critique and celebration, the critical response to the work has attempted to answer that vexing question. Reviewing a career survey of Zavros’ work in 2017 at the Newcastle Art Gallery, Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald argued that Zavros was celebrated by the “avant gardists [sic]” because his work is both realist and ironically critical, but that “Zavros is not an especially convincing moralist, as he makes no attempt to disguise his love of luxury goods and gym culture. His perpetually ironic stance allows him to be both critic and consumer, to portray the objects of his own desire.”
Writing in 2011, art critic Edward Colless observed that he had suspected much the same things existed within the artist’s oeuvre, but they still had undeniable incantory power. “[Zavros’s] images are like slyly ambiguous curses – oaths to beauty that are also hexes. Icons of a crafty superstition, they could be treacherous talismans.” As for the artist himself, Zavros told Sharne Wolff in 2013 in an interview for The Art Life, “I just make the stuff and I have no interest in defending it”.
The Brisbane-based, 45-year-old Zavros has produced work that has not only been incredibly durable in terms of the artist’s dedication to his abiding themes, but it has proven hugely attractive to both curators and collectors. Since his exhibiting career debut in Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 2000, and a debut solo commercial show with Mori Gallery, Sydney in 2001, Zavros has had at least one solo commercial show every year since, as well as representation in a variety of curated exhibitions including the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art in 2016; Selectively Revealed, the Asialink/Experimenta touring exhibition that was seen in Korea, Thailand, Taipei and Taiwan in 2012; as well as career survey shows in Newcastle Art Gallery in 2017 and Tweed River Art Gallery in 2012.
The seemingly tireless Zavros has meanwhile produced new works, and the occasional performance work, for art fairs in Sydney, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. While Zavros has built a formidable collector following with his paintings and drawings, with major pieces in the holdings of state and national galleries and corporate collections, he’s also been the recipient of some high-profile painting prizes including The Bulgari Art Award in 2012 and the Doug Moran Prize in 2010. He is commercially represented by Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, Starkwhite in Auckland, and most recently Sydney/Singapore gallery Sullivan+Strumpf. If nothing else, Zavros is primarily known as a painter’s painter, a master of his craft.
Which makes the artist’s most recent exploration into photography for A Guy Like Me, his debut show with Sullivan+Strumpf, a significant departure. “This work is a departure in lot of way, but it’s still very me,” Zavros says.
“Sometimes artists want to change, to find a balance between what is new and fresh and still within your broader practice.”
The new series of images sees a Zavros doppelgänger – a custom created mannequin with head and face crafted to resemble the artist – placed in a variety of poses, in situations that resemble the strange stylisation of life found in Calvin Klein fashion spreads and lifestyle magazines. And the themes of the new work? “Self-portraiture, self-image, narcissism,” says Zavros. “I play with stand-ins – a performance between art and life and what that might look like.”
The works also have a definite science fictional edge, recalling the narratives of recent TV shows such as Westworld and Real Humans, and the pathos-laden drama between created beings and their agency within the real world. Indeed, Zavros says that part of the inspiration came from reading Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Me, which dealt with similar themes. Of course, Zavros’ images connect to the everyday experience of seeing mannequins in shop windows. “Mannequins with humanlike faces always show melancholy – that’s why shops use blank ones,” he says.
The decision to take on Zavros at Sullivan+Strumpf was partly based on his desire to try a new direction. “We’ve watched Michael’s practice, how both he and his work have developed, and we felt it was time,” says gallery director Ursula Sullivan. “There is an edge to his work that we love, and once we knew he really wanted to push that, we were in.”
How does the new series connect to the past work? “Michael exposes our human desire to be beautiful, have nice things, be our ideal version,” says Sullivan. “But he does it in a way that also exposes the complexity, the internal struggle of this. It is not implicit in his work, but we always sense it. This new work is a genius next step, showing a deep questioning of self, and executed in such a truly brilliant way. Many, but not all, will fully comprehend the raw humanness of the work.”
Featured image: Michael Zavros, Dad likes Colour, 2020. Lightjet print, edition of 3 + 2AP, 172.7 x 122cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Singapore.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 94, OCT – DEC 2020.