Bad dad: An interview with Michael Zavros


Queensland artist Michael Zavros’s painting, Bad dad 2013 was the subject of the 2016 QAGOMA Foundation Appeal. Peter McKay spoke with the artist about the work, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Archibald Prize.

Peter McKay / Audiences often appear attracted to the quality of your images as much as their content. Your technical ability has evolved considerably in recent years and is perhaps edging closer towards photorealism, yet I tend to think of your visual style as being more charmed or seductive than realistic or literal like a photograph. It’s as though the polish itself is an integral part of the content.

Michael Zavros / When something is nearing completion or is starting to look good, I find myself losing time looking at the work, enjoying it. There’s a luxury in the looking. And whilst I think you’re right that the paintings at times edge closer to a photorealism, I’m never slavishly mimicking the source material. I still pick and choose information, taking what’s required. There are always parts of a painting that I consciously or subconsciously focus on, that my eye goes to and my audience then follows.

The polish you describe and the technique itself are mirrored by the content. Looking back I realise most of my portraits have either come from the world of fashion or advertising: perfected and slick. And even when they’re not models, they’re cast as if they were or with an awareness of their place in such a world.

Peter / Bad dad certainly appears to make reference to Caravaggio’s masterpiece Narcissus in its composition. How important is the link?

Michael / The work was certainly made in response to Caravaggio’s Narcissus in the Barberini collection in Rome, which I saw when I was on residence as part of the Bulgari Art Award. It is a contemporary response to his painting, but it also extends on previous works I have made about the myth of Narcissus. V12 Narcissus 2009 was a small oil-on-board painting I made of myself looking in to the bonnet of a V12 Mercedes Benz sports car.

Michael Zavros, Australia b.1974 / Bad dad 2013 / Oil on canvas / 110 x 150cm / 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
Caravaggio / Narcissus c.1597–1599 / Oil on canvas / Collection: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Peter / Bad dad is very distinct, much brighter and more colourful than Caravaggio’s interpretation, which is heavy on the chiaroscuro. Are these themes losing their drama, becoming ordinary? Is sunlight the new shadow?

Michael / Perhaps there is a new ordinariness to narcissism. Certainly within social media platforms it’s becoming commonplace and I find this phenomenon fascinating.

Few contemporary artists employ anything like Caravaggio’s palette without it looking twee. My palette reflects my love of Pop, and in Bad dad, crucially, it turns up the volume, emphasising a paralysis and the curious stillness of the family pool. I have been looking a lot at David Hockney and his swimming pool works, which I have always admired.

I recently finished a large painting for Art Los Angeles Contemporary called The Sunbather, which riffs on a Hockney painting of the same name but extends on the Narcissus theme. I have taken up swimming for fitness, and it affords me great thinking time and epic swimmer’s tan lines. I have just made a new film work with my daughter, Phoebe, called Phoebe treads water, which is an amalgam of the ideas in Bad dad and The Sunbather. All my work this year, including a small painting of Phoebe in the pool entitled The Mermaid, has a water theme. I am waterlogged.

Peter / Continuing with that discussion about colour, have your methods changed, and what prompted the shift?

Michael / Yes. How I paint has shifted profoundly in recent years. I started to employ Old Master techniques, building my paintings in monochromatic layers before finishing with bright, pure and transparent colour. Bad dad was made this way and it’s more saturated, richer for it. This also marks a dramatic shift from typical photorealist painters who finish sections at a time.

I have also changed my practice in other subtle and significant ways. I used to work mostly with found imagery, but I now spend a long time making my subjects before I photograph them, and then I paint them. So previously, the creative moment was immediate, but now it can last days, weeks or months.

The still-life works I have been making, for example, are a big production, from the buying of flowers, finding props, arranging, lighting and photography to reach the final paintable image. I create my own tableaux and that has become an important part of the process. It is almost performative and revealing the hand of the artist more so than the painting process.

Peter / When I think about your works, I interpret them as representing pieces of the world that interest you most. By extension, I take them to form a de facto self-portrait: luxury goods, gardens, flowers, family, palaces and pedigree animals. In Bad dad, however, your own likeness becomes the centre, and we are directed by the title to think of your family and surmise why you’ve been labelled ‘bad’. Are you acknowledging, in a light-hearted way, the foibles of practising such perfection, or is there a moment of deeper self-reflection at play?

Michael / I think all artists make work about the thing that interests them and it’s what they do with it that makes them a good artist or not. What interests me deviates from what interests most artists or curators, hence your question I presume, and the requirement to defend my choices.

I’m an unashamed aesthete. I like to make work that is beautiful and then to gaze at it. Bad dad is mockingly circuitous in that way. And my idea of beauty is often keyed to luxury or status but I never seek to cast a moral judgement over my subject; if anything I think I hold a mirror to other people’s relationships to these things and their personal feelings of desire, guilt or distaste perhaps.

If people read them as a statement about the parlous state of contemporary culture, so be it. I am interested in a more cool observance. I paint these things because they are in my life.

It is serendipitous. Bad dad is on one level a personal meditation on my experience of fatherhood. The children are present through their absence, and I like the sinister tension at play here; the bereft pool toys, my self-absorption. My work is often described as narcissistic or vainglorious and I am comfortable with that.

Peter / How important is it to you to be acknowledged by your home state through the work of the QAGOMA Foundation? With growing recognition of your work — in Auckland, Hong Kong, Los Angeles — the world is beckoning.

Michael / It’s very important to me. I have been visiting the Queensland Art Gallery since I was a child and now my children come here. It is really exciting to be working more overseas and developing this side of my practice but I do seek acknowledgment from this state and my peers. It matters what my home town thinks of me. That’s why Madonna always plays Detroit.

Peter McKay spoke with Michael Zavros in March 2016.

The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) Foundation raises crucial funds to develop the Gallery’s Collection and present major exhibitions and community-based public programs, including regional and children’s programs.


Abdul Abdullah ‘Coming to terms’






Abdul Abdullah,Australia b. 1986 / Groom II (Stratagem)Bride II (Subterfuge)Groom I (Zofloya)Bride I (Victoria) (from ‘Coming to terms’ series 2015) / Chromogenic prints, ed 1/5 + 2AP / Purchased 2015 with funds from the Future Collective through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The ‘Coming to terms’ series is Abdul Abdullah’s most recent reply to the present mistrust directed towards Muslims in Australia. Featured in APT8, and selected by QAGOMA’s new Future Collective as their first contribution to the Gallery’s Collection, these five photographs repurpose the palatable tropes of traditional wedding photography to convey complex intercultural narratives, with the bride and groom donning balaclavas — a visual synonym for criminality and its threats.

Born in Perth a seventh-generation Australian, Abdul Abdullah’s earliest forebear reached these shores from England in 1815. His mother is a first generation migrant — a Bugis Malay woman from Malaysia — and his father, a prominent community figure, converted to Islam in 1971. As a child, Abdullah often stood distinct from the Australian ‘norm’, but at the formative age of 14, the events of 11 September 2001 recast his relationship with this country. He, his family and others like him became subject to a new dimension of hate-filled aggression, violence and intimidation. The artist comments:

Australia is one of the best places in the world to live. But growing up a Muslim in this country — you get used to seeing Muslims portrayed negatively in the media. In the popular imagination . . . you are the bad guy. You start to feel the divide of them and us’.1

Abdullah’s familiarity with this pervasive cultural prejudice has informed his most significant recent works.


Abdul Abdullah, Australia b. 1986 / The wedding (Conspiracy to commit) (from ‘Coming to Terms’ series) 2015 / Chromogenic print, ed. 1/5 + 2 AP / Purchased 2015 with funds from the Future Collective through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The wedding (Conspiracy to commit) — the largest of the works in the series — depicts a young couple in contemporary wedding costumes that bear the vivid colour and fine embellishment of Islamic culture. They sit within a fantasy-themed scene of flowing curtains and mounds of green and white flowers, a playful exuberance common in wedding photography studios in Malaysia, where the photo was taken. Yet their expressions of happiness are substituted with rigid postures. Here, Abdullah reflects the inflammatory projections of a select political discourse and the slurry of media depictions, demonstrating something of the corruption of character through language in this take on ‘commitment’. Groom II (Stratagem) and Bride II (Subterfuge) function the same way, with these related works setting each figure alone against an infinite black background with dramatic studio lighting. Emerging from the shadows, their union is seen as a construction, an elaborate plot to distract from the alleged nature of their actions.

Another pair of figures set against perfect black — Bride I (Victoria) and Groom I (Zofloya) — are different again, touching on the historical vilification of Muslims in Western cultures through a reference to the nineteenth-century gothic novel Zofloya; or, The Moor, penned by Charlotte Dacre. The tale is brimming with acts of scheming, neglect, adultery and abandonment, which cumulatively poison the characters and their relationships. As the story goes, Victoria confides her sense of guilt in Zofloya after her deceptions end in the misery and suicide of other characters. At this moment, Zofloya is inspired to reveal his true identity to Victoria: he is Satan, her corrupter and destroyer. This intricate tale is conceivably representative of the xenophobia of its era, and in this new context, suggests a sustained mistrust of and bigotry towards Muslims.

The absurd notion that a wedding, a time of joy, should be misappropriated by evil, responds succinctly to the current conflation of Islam and terrorism. Engaging with representations of difference by presenting imagery in which contradictory symbols coexist, Abdullah draws attention to inconsistent attitudes and instances of mainstream cultural bias. The series’ title, ‘Coming to terms’, perhaps reflects the artist’s attempt to come to terms with the marginalisation he has experienced living in post-9/11 Australia; it could also imply a proxy attempt to draft ‘terms’ of understanding and awareness that might resolve this recent period of discord.

Through these striking works, Abdul Abdullah facilitates more thoughtful reflection and dialogue, encouraging viewers to engage with the subject critically, and to challenge the ways in which Muslim people continue to be unfairly represented and perceived.

1  Rod Pattenden, ‘Atheist critic blind to current religious symbols’, in Eureka Street, vol.21, no.19, 4 October 2011,, accessed 16 October 2015.

Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA

Rosalie Gascoigne’s ‘Overland’ recalls a patchwork landscape


Overland, a wonderful work by Rosalie Gascoigne entered the Gallery’s collection as an exceptional gift, given in memory of Rosalie and Ben Gascoigne, her husband.

Gascoigne is among the most highly regarded Australian artists of recent history. Coming to art somewhat later in life — only holding her first exhibition in 1974 at the age of 57 — Gascoigne eschewed the dominant career pattern followed by most and walked a path of her own making. Arguably, the source of Gascoigne’s success was her capacity to think and act differently, and to honour an object for its inherent qualities rather than assume the values attributed by general regard.

In considering the late masterwork Overland, it is important to understand the origins of her insights — and how they could be employed to transform a stack of beaten old ply into a harmonious evocation of the Australian landscape.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Australia 1917-99 / Installation of the Australian collection at QAG featuring Overland 1996 / Painted, warped plywood panels on wood blocks / 25 panels and 16 blocks (installed, variable) / Gift in memory of Rosalie and Ben Gascoigne through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2014. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Rosalie Gascoigne 1996/Licensed by Viscopy / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Gascoigne was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1917. She graduated from the University of Auckland in 1937 with a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in English, French, Latin, Mathematics and Greek) before training as a teacher and teaching English, Latin, French and History at Auckland Girl’s Grammar School between 1938 and 1942. When Gascoigne arrived in Australia in 1943 to marry Ben Gascoigne, a New Zealand-born astronomer working at Mount Stromlo observatory outside Canberra, she found herself somewhat isolated in what was a small foreign community, though she refused to be confined by distance and social expectations. As Kelly Gellatly noted,

. . . far from her home and support of family and friends, she found solace in nature, learning to identify the variety of grasses and stones while on walks with the children; gradually coming to appreciate the different markers of the Australian landscape. And despite the restricted domestic conventions of Stromlo’s tight community, these found objects we eventually brought inside, where they were assembled and arranged by Gascoigne for contemplation over time.1

Subsequently, Gascoigne would study ikebana from 1962 with Norman Sparnon, a master in the Sogetsu School. Sparnon espoused the belief that ‘good design’ was the foundation of beauty and the vehicle for emotional content. While Gascoigne demonstrated great aptitude for arranging, even receiving praise from the founder of the Sogetsu School himself, her interests would continue to expand with her growing engagement in the Canberra art world.2 From this point on, Gascoigne embarked on a necessarily idiosyncratic expedition through art and nature, somewhat obsessively combing the paddocks and rural dumps, factories and junkyards for discarded materials left to weather, finding beauty in that which would normally be overlooked, and in the process, bringing everyday life into new frames of reference.

With this in mind we can recognise that landscape and art materials were, in Gascoigne’s eyes, one and the same. Moreover, only through understanding nature in its most elemental, the light and shadow, hot and cold, the wind, rain and dry — and also the vocabulary left by the elements impressions on the physical — was Gascoigne able to cast such deep impressions of the majesty instilled by the Monaro–Canberra region with such humble means.


When gridded and carefully spaced to allow a rolling continuity of surface, the 25 gently warped plywood panels of Overland recall the patchwork effect of a landscape viewed from the air, the subtle undulations of countryside, order rendered through cultivation, and the mottled effects of light and shadow. The tension between order and irregularity create a rhythmic pattern; a musicality and a geometric certainty, which could extend out in any direction and, in this way, conveys both a sense of expanse and the particularities of place. The panels’ placement on the ground further emphasises the undulating horizon, which, at this scale and body relationship, offers the audience a mind’s eye view of a land that comes from time spent piecing together a place by place, hill by hill, valley by valley. Overland ventures far beyond illustration to become an iteration of nature, a landscape at peace with its emptiness and richness.


1  Kelly Gellatly ‘Rosalie Gascoigne: Making poetry of the commonplace’, in Rosalie Gascoigne, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2008, p.10.
2  Gellatly, p.11–12.

Peter Mckay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA

GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art

Liam O’Brien / Production still of Domestication 2014 / High-definition video / Courtesy: The artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

A new exhibition is set to present insights into the contemporary art being produced by more than 30 Queensland artists and will open at GOMA from 11 July until 11 October 2015.

‘GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art’ presents original insights into the character of Queensland art and culture. The exhibition will contextualise the most dynamic achievements in Queensland art today, showcasing artists of all generations working across the spectrum of themes and media. Queensland is a diverse setting and has become the site of exciting and productive artistic exchanges and intriguing ideas, values and aesthetic practices. ‘GOMA Q’ is a concept spun from the state’s evolving vitality and identity.

All throughout 2014, curator Bruce McLean, QAGOMA Director Chris Saines and I met with hundreds of Queensland artists, consulting and researching in preparation for this project. After countless discussions and deliberations, a line-up of more than 30 exceptional emerging, midcareer and senior artists working in painting, ceramic, video, performance, installation and sculpture has been established.

Featured artists include lively scenes from Davida Allen’s day‑to‑days, the delicately layered meditations of Ian Friend, and recent paintings by Gordon Shepherdson — which chart memories of time spent at sea — will show alongside a new generation of painters. Julie Fragar delves further into her ongoing series, putting imagery to the wild tales of her earliest ancestor in Australia, Antonio de Fraga, who set out from the Portuguese colony of Flores on an American whaling ship at the age of 12. Madeleine Kelly takes a new tangent in memorialising her whimsical encounters with local bird life. Rising star Tyza Stewart and the immaculate Michael Zavros each consider some of the unique ways in which individual identities are constructed in contemporary Australia. The works of north Queensland’s Naomi Hobson sparkle with brilliance as they present the artist’s country, between the eastern slopes of the McIlwraith Range south of Lockhart River and its western slopes north of Coen; while senior artist Mavis Ngallametta captures the grandeur, complexity and intensity of her country on the West Cape in her imposing paintings.

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Sam Cranstoun / Mountbatten 2014–15 (stills) / High definition video / Courtesy: The artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

New sculpture and installation works also feature prominently in the exhibition. Up-and-comer Sam Cranstoun tells of the incredible and tragic life and death of Lord Mountbatten, while Dale Harding examines moments of heartbreaking Aboriginal oppression in the state. Anita Holtsclaw searches the seas for a sense of belonging, and David Thomas’s participatory work walks the audience down a tightrope between happiness and alienation. Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan demonstrate the ingenuity and inventiveness of Filipino culture, showing how abandoned US jeeps from World War Two have been reinvented as exuberant jeepneys. Meanwhile, Brian Robinson’s sci-fi creation stories, rooted in the mythologies and traditions of the Torres Strait, reach into the unknown to explain the present; while Lawrence Omeenyo’s fluid ceramics celebrate his country by immortalising ancestral heroes in hybrid figurative vessels.

Lawrence Omeenyo / Umpila people / Croc Man Bowl III 2012 / Earthenware, hand built with glazes / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Political dialogues find voice through the cutting works of Vernon Ah Kee. Similarly, Pat Hoffie reflects on the tensions between domestic expectations, international relations, and the measurable dimensions of the sound bite. Chantal Fraser considers the tensions between culture, race and the state, and the consequences for a community when trusted authorities abuse their power. Media artist Moe Louanjli cleverly harnesses the power of a divide‑and-conquer algorithm employed in preparation for modern warfare, while Antoinette J Citizen uses a rudimentary artificial intelligence to predict her near future.

Prolific photographer Kim Guthrie puts the extraordinary lives of ordinary Queenslanders in the frame, while collaborative duo Clark Beaumont perform to the camera, describing love as a potentially selfish and vain engagement. Monica Rohan’s self-portraiture draws attention to the plight of the introvert in a world that demands attention and interaction. Likewise, Liam O’Brien uses video to confront his personal history, seeking explanation for his past impulses.

With computer animation, Grant Stevens ruminates on the desire to cultivate a sense of self in a society that appears to have little interest in the individual beyond their potential to consume. Tim Woodward uses video to illustrate a relationship between art and religion in their dependence on society for confirmation and support of their value. Paul Bai also plays with perception, representation and the economy of form in his graphic wall-work, while Ross Manning emphasises the subjective experience of the passing present with similar restraint.

Emerging printmaker Teho Ropeyarn’s large-scale work reveals the cultural landscape of his country at the very tip of Cape York, while Jennifer Herd’s pinhole drawings of rainforest shield designs are a lesson in refinement and minimal translation. Ready to challenge expectations, ‘GOMA Q’ will demonstrate the inspired, innovative and inventive art of contemporary Queensland. Recognising the Gallery’s enduring responsibility to connect audiences to artists, future exhibitions will continue to provide original insights into the art and culture of the state.

Tyza Stewart ‘Untitled’

Tyza Stewart, Australia b.1990 / Untitled 2014 / Oil on board / Purchased 2014 with funds from Alex and Kitty Mackay through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery /© The artist

These works, recently acquired for the Collection with the generous support of Alex and Kitty Mackay, illustrate the processes, and challenges, of the artist’s gender modification. The works will feature in ‘GOMA Q: Contemporary Queensland Art’, opening 11 July 2015.

As a young teen, Tyza Stewart was frequently preoccupied with a desire to be a man, and more explicitly, a gay man. More than a precocious curiosity about the differences between the human form and a developing sexuality, Tyza’s sense of self grew with new information about masculinity, homosexuality, gender identity and gender modification. Many works present the artist’s head atop a muscular male body, painted as both a picture of personal desire and a demonstration of will against the expectations of society. Some more recent works diarise the artist’s process of gender modification, including two new acquisitions purchased with funds from Alex and Kitty Mackay.

Painted in shades of violet, Untitled 2014 presents the artist side on, looking away from the viewer with discreet determination. The somewhat matter-of-fact pose throws a tight cluster of pimples along the jaw line into the centre of the composition. Restrained and eloquent, Tyza infuses the scene with an illustrative quality, as if it was composed chiefly to present certain facts — namely, that these pimples are one of the more common signs of testosterone treatment that individuals can expect as part of the modification process, and as such have also become one of the artist’s first empirical observations to reflect upon. On balance, bad skin seems a fairly minor issue; and so the choice of subject here perhaps reveals the artist’s dry sense of humor as it brushes against a culture that cultivates and exploits our vanity.

Tyza Stewart / Untitled 2014 / Oil on board / Purchased 2014 with funds from Alex and Kitty Mackay through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery /© The artist

Untitled 2014 makes note of the relatively impersonal experience of being a medical subject or patient in the healthcare system, and on a more subtle level how the conventions and procedures associated with the medical field can test an individual’s self-perceptions. While this is clearly a self‑portrait, we can also see that, by drawing a thick black line across the eyes, the artist has rendered the subject anonymous. This is a standard practice in medical text books to protect (and perhaps neutralise) a subject’s identity. Talking about discovery of clinical interpretations of gender modification, Tyza has previously said that:

My dad had some psychology text books from uni and I’d been reading about that a bit and it just seemed like a medicalised disorder, and it wasn’t portrayed as anything that could be a gender identity. So I think it was a long time before I realised that it could be an identity, something that’s not bad, and not medicalised.1

Tyza has previously spoken of the political aspects of asserting a transgender identity, stating that, ‘by resisting and engaging with popular understandings of transsexual narratives, I aim to highlight some alternatives to the strict binary understandings of gender that constantly proliferate within our society’.2 In the influential book Gender Trouble (1990), cultural theorist Judith Butler similarly describes how we learn to understand ourselves through a strict binary system, coining the term ‘gender performativity’ to describe gender as the effect of repeated feminine or masculine acts rather than something innate. Butler posits that what is considered ‘true gender’ is in fact a narrative, sustained by ‘the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders . . . and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them’.3

Stylistically accomplished and uniquely disarming, Tyza Stewart’s painting practice grapples with and ultimately disregards the masculine/ feminine binary gender norms and the limitations they impose on the individual in favor of a concept of spectrums. Yet, while this work creates space for individual difference by asserting an identity, it is perhaps the freedom of expectation that it fosters in its audience that is the larger, and more subtle, achievement.

1  Dewi Cook, ‘Painter Tyza Stewart blurs the lines drawn between male and female’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2013,, accessed 19 November 2014.
2  Alison Kubler, ‘Introducing: Tyza Stewart’, Manuscript 2014,, accessed 19 September 2014.
3  Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Subversive Bodily Acts, IV Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions), Routledge, New York, 1990, p.179.

Out of a Clear Blue Sky

Madonna Staunton, Australia b.1938 / Sunflowers 2013 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Estate of the late Kathleen Elizabeth Mowle through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

For nearly 50 years, Queensland artist Madonna Staunton has been creating a significant and personal body of work in both paint and collage. We explore her works, which are the subject of the exhibition ‘Madonna Staunton:Out of a Clear Blue Sky’, currently in the Glencore Queensland Artists’ Gallery at QAG.

Madonna Staunton is well recognised for her significant contribution to Australian modernism over the last five decades, and has long been appreciated as one of Queenland’s favourite artists. Her confidently arranged collage and assemblage works exude a meditative lyricism that is prized by private collectors and admired by audiences. In recent years, however, Staunton has committed more and more of her time to figurative painting — the discipline that provided the origin of her art practice. The time has now come to contextualise this latest achievement in the exhibition ‘Madonna Staunton: Out of a Clear Blue Sky’.


Beginning with her earliest colour field abstracts of the 1960s, ‘Out of a Clear Blue Sky’ examines Staunton’s whole career for preludes and connections to this return to painting. Indeed, the exhibition comes to suggest that the artist has always taken on the concerns and interests of a painter, albeit one that has often worked with unconventional materials.

From school age, Staunton’s mother offered her a comparatively advanced introduction to the qualities of colour, tone and their capacity for drawing an emotional response. This attention, and her strong aptitude, meant that by the time Staunton attended classes at Brisbane’s Central Technical College in 1964, her understanding of colour and form arguably rivalled those of accomplished professionals. Famously, by the late 1960s, the artist directed her attention to collage due to ill health. Collage accommodated her particular skills perfectly and great success followed. But with her Armature series from 1999 the artist signalled her concerted return to painting, and her works began to demonstrate the kind of philosophical, psychological and emotional concerns that would occupy her thereafter.

New acquisitions that feature prominently in the exhibition include Anxiety 2012, a painting from which a sole figure depicted is nearly ejected from the picture plane, tumbling out of this synthetic space, preoccupied and faltering. The figure’s hands seem to repel each other like magnets of matching polarity, signifying a body and mind in all-consuming turmoil. Intelligently, the cityscape that surrounds them is articulated in a condensed geometric arrangement — a post cubist strategy linked to her tonal collage, but coded with emotional sensitivity provoked by the wrestling of humanist ideals and hostile circumstance. Brilliant, piercing blue eyes strike out from a sophisticated layering of complimentary tones — pink, yellow, mauve and more blue — all worked over each other with a delicate brush action.

Madonna Staunton / Anxiety 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas on board / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Estate of Jessica Ellis through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Sunflowers 2013, another recent acquisition, is remarkable for its economy of form. Again post-cubist, but with a nod to Van Gogh, Staunton has constructed a deceptively simple composition full of the pulse of nature, tempered by a mindfulness of the inevitable decay of all life. Its ambiance again reveals her immense capacity for colour and form in painting, and indicates an abundance of melancholy insights present in its making and in the artist.

‘Madonna Staunton: Out of a Clear Blue Sky’ demonstrates Staunton’s capacity to change and adapt, reintroduce and renew. Expressed with talents amassed over a career spanning nearly 50 years, these recent representational works are weighted with the kind of insights that come with age and deep reflection. This is Staunton’s first exhibition at the Gallery since 1994, and her first major exhibition since 2003. It is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated publication, which offers the most comprehensive representation yet of Madonna Staunton’s career and is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online.