Australian artist Michael Zavros has made a significant impact on the Australian art world through the artist’s multi-decade practice. He has created depictions of luxury and beauty and works inflected with humour and ambiguity that challenge the mind and please the eye, prompting the viewer to consider their own values.
Over 25 years of a rigorous practice, multidisciplinary artist Michael Zavros’s singular view of contemporary culture has attracted international recognition. His sought-after works explore worlds of luxury, even decadence, and are often filled with beauty. They convey a sense of desire and, more subtly, the artist’s reflections on identity. Glamorous depictions of idealised figures, stylish fashion, spectacular interiors, whimsical landscapes, purebred animals and playful still lifes are rendered with a painstaking precision and entrancing attention to detail that evokes the richness of his subjects. Raised in the Gold Coast hinterland and now residing in Brisbane, Zavros’s work is not without a challenging streak; many of the artist’s most successful gestures use humour and ambiguity to entertain a deeper meaning and prompt audiences to consider their own values and the broader patterns of society and the individual. Curiously, though Zavros is known primarily as a painter, he appears to reveal more about himself in his photographic, sculptural, video and relational artworks.
Michael Zavros ‘Adam’s Apple’
Michael Zavros ‘Debaser/Polka-dot’
The exhibition, ‘Michael Zavros: The Favourite’, began with a selection of insightful yet divergent explorations of contemporary masculinity, starting with his early ‘suit’ miniatures (illustrated Adam’s Apple 2000). Painted when Zavros was in his mid-twenties and still dreaming of the success that he would soon manifest, these contrasty, luminous panels take reproductions of fine tailoring and handcrafted footwear from fashion magazines and imbue them with the aura of a religious icon. Driven by devotion to lofty ideals, these works remain slightly impersonal — as if expressing a desire to be stylish, even beautiful, but also insulated from any pointed questions of self-hood by this veil of appearance. Nearby, the large sleek charcoal ‘Debaser’ drawings (illustrated Debaser/Polka-dot 2010) iterate this sentiment by depicting headshots of male models wearing the collars of high fashion houses, but with their faces significantly erased. This desire to construct a glamorous self that is free from any individual feature that could be descended on as a fault or failure quietly plays a heart-rending aspect of being judged for appearances — or even singled out and victimised for any intrinsic characteristic.
Michael Zavros ‘Prince/Zavros 6’
Despite their rugged, outdoorsy content, the ‘Prince/Zavros’ series (illustrated Prince/Zavros 6 2012) is in some respects a more cerebral exercise. Inspired by the North American conceptual artist Richard Prince’s ‘Cowboy’ works of the late 1980s, or at least, the record-breaking prices they have commanded at auction, Zavros reproduced by hand Prince’s own photographic appropriations of Marlboro advertisements. While Prince played with the potent symbolism, mythology and ubiquity of the iconic Marlboro Man within a media-saturated landscape, in appropriating Prince, Zavros ponders the life of the image, placing additional emphasis on its transition from studio to art market. Yet it is equally possible that Zavros is more sincere than Prince himself in his affection for the rugged cowboy mythology, demonstrating the tendency for North American culture to supplant the Australian experience.
Michael Zavros ‘Dad likes winter’
The ‘Dad’ mannequin photographs (illustrated Dad likes winter 2020) present a series of unguarded moments made uncanny to explore a sense of alienation and even depersonalisation. Zavros printed a three-dimensional likeness to stand in for him doing his favourite things, like spending time with his family at the beach, or driving his prized English Red Mercedes. Inspired by a complex range of sentiments, these images address a desire to embody the taller, broader, smoother body spawned by social media expectations, and a more sinking preoccupation with the feeling that one’s interests, and even one’s very presence, might be broadly interchangeable within a certain demographic or cultural group. However, the ‘Dad’ figure is also about the constructions of self that happen beyond our reach — as Zavros experienced when he started gaining media attention for his success. As curator and writer Robert Leonard notes, Michael ‘and his curator-writer wife Alison Kubler became Instagram celebrities, society-page staples, wormholes between the garret and the gala. Everything Zavros did seemed to be news’.1 This attention gave Zavros’s second self an oddly alien character that was largely unrecognisable to him and his loved ones – and in part, it is to this gap of recognition that Zavros gives image. Beyond the gesture itself, it’s worth noting the sad irony that this monotone dummy appears to yield a more nuanced appreciation of contemporary masculinity than many dominant mainstream narratives currently do.
Michael Zavro ‘1820s Regency leather sofa/Favela chair/Champion Dachshund ‘Windkiedach Wiggle’/a Dale Frank’
In one gallery space, the works consider ownership and the trophy phenomenon in fine grain; the way in which special classes of capital also act as social currency. On the walls at the centre of three large and lavish monochrome interiors, Zavros has painted artworks by the very recognisable and coveted Australian artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dale Frank (illustrated 1820s Regency leather sofa/Favela chair/Champion Dachshund ‘Windkiedach Wiggle’/a Dale Frank 2008) and Bill Henson. In this context, the artworks take on a ‘designer’ aspect, their intended meaning slightly subsumed by the luxury of their surroundings, operating instead as emblems of the absent owner. A more nuanced reading might recognise that these works could also play backdrop to various domestic scenes: time spent resting or recuperating, sharing meals, studying, or any number of life’s joys and pains. While it might seem obvious that evocative artworks can enrich a collector’s private life, these interiors challenge the art-world presumption that the ideal experience of a work of art is in a neutral public space: accessible, but distinctly isolated from everyday existence.
Michael Zavros ‘Trophy’
Michael Zavros ‘White Onagadori’
Alongside these works appears a selection of Zavros’s dramatic equestrian paintings, drawings and sculptures (illustrated Trophy 2010), which show the power (and vulnerability) of thoroughbreds; quixotic images of the rare Japanese Onagadori chicken (illustrated White Onagadori 2006) with its stunning but impractically long tail; and small paintings of European palaces such as Hanover’s Gartensaal and Sanssouci in Potsdam, which the artist has infused with sense of outdated opulence (many of these having been painted, literally, from the faded pages of old books). These works can be read in terms of possession and ambition, but also devotion and fragility. This facet of Zavros’s practice culminates in spectacular paintings in which gleaming bodybuilding equipment appears within the pinnacles of Western magnificence: the Palace (illustrated Echo 2009) and Trianon (illustrated The new Round Room 2010–12) at Versailles. The scenario conjures a mischievous absurdity that points to a darker undercurrent of extraordinary power in extreme isolation, perceiving something of our increasingly stratified class structure and its recurrence throughout history. As Zavros explains,
I wanted to create something that had a post apocalyptic feel. Something that was joyous and celebratory and glittery, but also at the same time ominous, with an air of foreboding . . . For The new Round Room I cast myself as the new Sun King occupying and decorating the strange theme park that is Versailles . . . a folly within a folly.2
Michael Zavros ‘Echo’
Michael Zavros ‘The new Round Room’
Zavros’s Narcissus-themed self-portraits are arguably his most iconic gestures, V12/Narcissus 2009 and Bad dad 2013 (illustrated), especially. Their impeccable, seductive surfaces reward our close attention, while intelligently updating the terms of reference for the ancient Greek myth about the relationship between the love of self and love of others. Zavros, however, is largely ambivalent about moral interpretations of his work; from that perspective, the images are more about recognising the aspirational yet insulating character of our contemporary culture — meditations on consumer meditations — than intended to stoke a fervent critique of consumerism and excess.
Michael Zavros ‘Bad dad’
Reflections of the artist also appear in his depictions of his children — Phoebe, Olympia and Leo. Phoebe (illustrated Phoebe is 11/Linda Farrow 2017) is a natural performer, interested in fashion, make-up and role play. Many works featuring Phoebe explore ideas of identity construction and coming of age. Olympia also appears, though less frequently; she’s more interested in being behind the easel or camera, or a drum kit. Leo distinguishes himself with a surprisingly versatile air of ‘rebel without a cause’. These paintings (and occasional photographs) are complex. They can be read as revealing intimate aspects of family life, yet in many respects, are intended more lightly: observational, but playful. Phoebe, Olympia and Leo aren’t necessarily playing ‘themselves’; instead, they play characters invented in collaboration with Zavros. The temptation to ponder questions about responsible parenting or, again, the moral climate in which children are raised today, should play relatively faintly.
Michael Zavros ‘Phoebe is 11/Linda Farrow’
In recent years, still life has been a pillar of Zavros’s practice. We see opulent arrangements of fruits and flowers, seashells and vases on pristine white canvases conjure all kinds of animals from poodles to peacocks, and from giant pandas to the mythological Phoenix (illustrated The octopus 2014). These works recall the fantastical proto-surrealist portraits of sixteenth-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who often fashioned his subjects from clever compositions of vegetables. Whereas Arcimboldo’s approach was dark and grotesque, Zavros’s is light-filled and light-hearted, overtly operating at surface level. In this way, his still lifes are less about trickery or illusion and more a pure game or joke, consciously walking the limits of artifice, painterly skill, and the construction of meaning.
Michael Zavros ‘The octopus’
The exhibition concludes with a large-scale mural, filling GOMA’s Gallery 1.2. Titled Acropolis now 2023, the work is an invocation of the great achievements of Greek society and culture, framed through the distance of time. Here, it provides a backdrop for awareness of cultural repatriation movements, and references a certain locus of community gatherings, recalling the Greek cafes and clubs that his father frequents. Extending the ambiance, backgammon tables invite the audience to linger, learn the game and socialise.
Despite a fixation on outward appearances and investment in the surface level, Michael Zavros plumbs a multitude of emotional and psychological depths. In that regard, it is not so surprising that Zavros prefers to say little about his work, other than to encourage an open-ended interpretation and to temper the desire to quickly ascribe a critical view. While our relationship to his subjects can be complicated, perhaps our appreciation for his themes of beauty and family, and his penchant for self-reflection, need not be.
Peter McKay is Curatorial Manager, Australian Art.
1 Robert Leonard, ‘The devil’s in the detail’, in Michael Zavros: The Favourite, QAGOMA, Brisbane, 2023, pp.64.
2 Michael Zavros, quoted in Mariam Arcilla, ‘Michael Zavros: Capturing the Prince’, Vault, no.3, April 2013, p.77.
‘Michael Zavros: The Favourite‘ in 1.1 (The Fairfax Gallery) and 1.2 was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane from 24 June to 2 October 2023. This exhibition offered opportunities for dialogue with ‘eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness’ presented in the adjacent gallery 1.2 and 1.3 (Eric and Marion Taylor Gallery).
Featured image: Michael Zavros painting Bad dad 2013 / Purchased 2016 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Appeal / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Michael Zavros