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.