Magic Mike: Michael Zavros

May 5, 2017
Michael Zavros, Phoebe is dead/McQueen (2010),
Michael Zavros, Phoebe is dead/McQueen (2010),

Any artist who paints with the quasi-photographic precision of Michael Zavros will always find admirers. After being subjected to more than a century of Modernist de-skilling the public is still turned to putty by virtuoso displays of technique, preferring the artist who can “really paint” to the one whose genius has to be explained by art experts.

One suspects many die-hard avant-gardists retain a secret love of realist painting, but if Zavros (b. 1974) had nothing but technique he wouldn’t be so idolised by the contemporary art crowd. What he does have is rather problematic: a mixture of glamour and irony that allows him to appeal to groups of people whose tastes would never ordinarily coincide.

That mixture is on full display in Magic Mike, a survey of Zavros’s work hosted by the Newcastle Art Gallery. It’s an excellent pairing with Alex Seton’s The Island (until 7 May), a show of realistic marble sculptures mimicking life jackets, paper boats and inflatable palm trees. But where Seton has an unmistakable political agenda, Zavros is a marvel of ambiguity.

Magic Mike is an exhibition so finely-tuned, so packed with expensive commodities, it might have been made for a department store rather than a museum. Zavros’s immaculate paintings are interspersed with gym equipment supplied by a sponsor. Throughout the show there are “performances” on these contraptions – performances that may not be radically different from those that take place at any gynasium.

The real gym equipment has to compete with Zavros’s paintings, notably Echo (2009) which shows barbells and bench presses in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. The chrome-plated weights gleam like jewels, outshining the other lavish decorations in this large-scale, black-and-white composition

Michael Zavros, 'Echo' (2009)

Michael Zavros, ‘Echo’ (2009)

Zavros is perfectly serious about ‘the body beautiful’, even as he satirises a contemporary obsession. He spoofs our lust for commodities and designer labels while indulging in the very same habits. He admits his own vanity while portraying himself in the role of Narcissisus, gazing at his reflection in a swimming pool in The Sunbather (2015); or in the gleaming bonnet of a car, in V12 Narcissus (2009)

Michael Zavros, 'V12 Narcissus' (2009)

Michael Zavros, ‘V12 Narcissus’ (2009)

For Zavros the key ingredient is irony – “the condom of our culture”, as Robert Hughes described it. There’s no point in complaining that Zavros’s still lifes are filled with luxury goods because ‘luxury’ is his subject, in the same way that an old Dutch painting of a skull and a piece of rotting fruit was really about ‘mortality’.

For an artist in the 18th century religion was a dominant influence on everyday life, but in the consumer society of today many of us seek our satisfactions in commodities rather than the prospect of heavenly rewards. Zavros, a creature of our age and a student of art history, is still happy to place himself within a moralising tradition. Like his predecessors, the artist warns about the vanity of earthly things. His designer ties rear up like cobras, their labels prominently displayed.

It’s not exactly the same because there are no everlasting penalties for being in thrall to fashion, only the frustations of wasting time and money. Besides, 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 with a wink and a shake of the head.

Zavros’s floral still lifes could be more accurately termed cornucopias – the classical ‘horns of plenty’ that celebrated fertility and abundance. Painted with mind-boggling detail they are traps for the unwary. There will be many viewers enraptured by the artist’s expertise but oblivious to the works’ campy sexual innuendos. One floral arrangement in the shape of a rooster is called Red Cock (2015) – a little touch of vulgarity to dilute the overwhelming slickness of the brushwork.

Michael Zavros, 'Red Cock' (2015)

Michael Zavros, ‘Red Cock’ (2015)

Zavros includes his children in this fiesta of commodity fetishism. In Phoebe is eight/Tom Ford (2013), his eldest daughter poses with hand on hip, in the style of a fashion model, wearing Tom Ford sunglasses. The show also includes the painting that won him the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, Phoebe is dead/McQueen (2010), in which five-year old Phoebe lies under an Alexander McQueen scarf covered in skulls. It was McQueen who had just died (by his own hand) but this beautiful, disturbing portrait played on the worst fears of every parent – giving a macabre twist to the phrase “fashion victim”.

Michael Zavros, 'Phoebe is eight/Tom Ford' (2013),

Michael Zavros, ‘Phoebe is eight/Tom Ford’ (2013),

The ubiquitous Phoebe also appears in Mermaid (2015), peering up at us from a swimming pool, bare-chested, eyes half-closed, lips parted and very red. For those who view every image of a child in art as a sexual provocation, this can only be an edgy proposition.

Zavros is walking a tightrope, making images that implicitly critique the way children respond to the sexualised images they see on TV and in magazines, but using his own daughter in a role that some might see as exploitative. He’s perfectly aware of the risks involved, but perhaps feels protected by his impenetrable force field of irony, and his parental purity of heart.

The moral panic that has grown up around images of children, seen at its most extreme in the Bill Henson saga of 2009, has done much to create a climate of public anxiety that poisons adult-child relationships. Nevertheless, I find Mermaid a more unsettling image than any of Henson’s naked teens.

Michael Zavros, 'Mermaid' (2015)

Michael Zavros, ‘Mermaid’ (2015)

With Henson we get a dark, uncompromising beauty that makes us want to look ever more deeply into the picture. With Zavros, there is a breathtaking clarity in everything he paints, but nothing is quite what it seems. What we get is a game of surfaces and appearances, in which the pleasure of looking is gradually transmuted into a slightly disreputable activity, like staring too hard at other people’s kids.

The ‘beauty’ in these paintings is strictly within inverted commas. By the end of this show I’d begun to feel that Magic Mike was no slave to heartless beauty, but a cold-blooded master of artifice.

Magic Mike: Michael Zavros
Newcastle Art Gallery, 4 March – 28 May

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May, 2017