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Michael Zavros: The art chose me

Set to showcase his first exhibition in three years, in his home state of Queensland, the talented artist talks about his work, why Australians struggle with his exploration of narcissism, and the red-tape artists face working with young models

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'Flora', 2016, oil on aluminium, by Michael Zavros.

09 November 2016

Michael Zavros is not your average artist. Aside from drawing and painting, he has added a number of additional strings to his bow, working with a variety of mediums including photography, sculpture and film. Though the Queensland College of Art graduate is most celebrated for his hyper-realist paintings, which are a result of his hard work and dedication, ultimately to perfection. Those first introduced to Zavros' work, and even those of us who are more familiar with it, can't help but take a second, third and even fourth glance in awe of his talents in capturing each detail meticulously, rendering snapshots of life with a paintbrush and giving photographers a run for their money.

Raised on the Gold Coast by his Greek-Cypriot father and Australian mother, over the years his work has taken him around the globe, and is said to be some of the nation's 'most collectable', sought after and exhibited throughout Asia, Europe, New Zealand, and now the United States, attaining him A-list status.

Now following on from his first exhibition in the US at Art Los Angeles Contemporary, this month the Greek Australian will return to his roots, showcasing his latest exhibition 'A Million Dollars' in Queensland − the first in three years. The collection includes a series of works that bring together various mediums exploring themes including narcissism, the passing of time and the fading of youth.

The exhibition also includes works from what has developed into an ongoing project with his 11-year-old daughter Phoebe, whose birth also gave way to a new and exciting muse for Zavros, and there's no denying that the father-daughter team have something special going.

Their creations have been highly regarded; his piece Phoebe is dead/Alexander McQueen, picturing a five-year-old Phoebe draped in an Alexander McQueen scarf, was awarded the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2010. More recently, in August, Flora, which shows Phoebe undressed from the waist up and veiled in a Gucci scarf – a piece of work which once again is layered with meaning, in this case symbolic of his daughter's entry into puberty and blossoming into a young woman − won the Mosman Art Prize, outperforming his 96 fellow finalists.

Ahead of his exhibition, Neos Kosmos reached out to Zavros for a conversation on his art, which unfolded into a discussion on the perception of his work by various audiences across the globe, his interest in exploring the ancient Greek tale of Narcissus, and the challenges facing artists in 2016 who work with young models, in the aftermath of what is infamously known as the Bill Henson case.

'The Phoenix', 2015, oil on canvas, by Michael Zavros.

At what stage of your life did art start to become your focus?
I guess being an artist was something that I always just was as a kid. It almost felt like it wasn't a choice for me, it was just a mantle that people bestow upon you from a young age and I kind of just grew up to be that. Going through art school and some of the obstacles that come afterwards; you start having achievements and you get a sense that you can make a career out of it, or perhaps derive an income from it. But there was no 'aha' moment for me; it was always just something that I wanted to do and I set about trying to do.

For those who know your work, you have quite a distinct style. Was this consciously pursued, or was it an aspect of your art that developed organically?
Definitely the latter. Your sense of style, it emerges as you develop techniques that you like as an artist and you start to develop your own mark. Those are the sorts of things that just happen over time and maybe sometimes in incremental ways; you sort of take small steps and then you look back and you've come a long way.

Michael Zavros Photo: AAP Image/AGNSW

You certainly have. This year you had your first exhibition in the United States at Art Los Angeles Contemporary. How was your work received?
Great; it was a really successful show for me. It was part of an art fair, it's a big thing in the art world – they're a little bit like an expo, where a commercial gallery will take a booth or a small gallery space, and either show a solo exhibition from one of their stable of artists, or perhaps a group exhibition. So my Auckland gallery took me to the LA art fair. It was really well received. I think in lots of ways the international thing has progressed fast because my work is not typically Australian, and there's a kind of audacity to a lot of what I make that a lot of Aussies struggle with at times. But to an American audience, they just think that's great.

That's interesting; when you say an "audacity" − what is it exactly that you think Aussies struggle with in your work?
Well, in this LA show there was a massive nude self-portrait and it's kind of vainglorious and narcissistic, but that's kind of the point of it. But often in Australia that just looks kind of problematic; people sort of have a hard time with that, but in the States, people just think it's great – that's what you would make work about. It's kind of interesting.

That painting was a David Hockney reference and he sort of famously went to LA as a British artist and made these works that were very LA, but from the outside – and I think I did that to a degree. That's probably why it was well received.

'Madonna and Child', oil on linen, by Michael Zavros.

Do you think that attitude is typically Australian? Is that also the case with audiences in Europe, or is it a throwback to our Anglo-Saxon settlers?
I think it's possibly a British sensibility. But it's interesting to me that while I see it as this cautionary tale - which is classically Greek [see Narcissus] - it really speaks to our times. It's a social construct that we have; that's what I find interesting about it.

Aside from your self-portrait, narcissism is a theme you have explored in your art before. What keeps drawing you back?
I guess there's lots of different things. I mean, the very act of making a self-portrait is kind of a narcissistic gesture, but when I talk about narcissism it's not necessarily a social comment. I think it's interesting to consider the way it's discussed, and that's usually via social media platforms and what that's done to us as a society. But I'm interested in the very act of art making. The kind of painting that I'm making is a very narcissistic gesture, or it could be seen to be this very closed system; it has a vainglorious quality to it − it's utterly pointless when we have photography, and I like that. So the subject matter is kind of a reference to the gesture itself.

I wasn't expecting that response, though it makes complete sense. Now, it's hard for one to discuss your work without talking about your daughter Phoebe. You've been known to say that she is your muse. It would seem, as with most parents, her birth had a profound effect on you. How did it change you, and your approach to your art?
In lots of ways; ways that I wasn't expecting. You look at the sorts of things that I was making around that time, and I really thought the last thing I would do would be to start making art about her, or the kids generally. It was completely different to where I was heading. In that really organic way I just started to work with her and I liked it, she liked it – she's a really good model. And so we sort of collaborate a lot more now.

'Sunbather' by Michael Zavros.

There's been a bit of controversy surrounding some of your work depicting Phoebe, namely those in which she is baring skin, which may have been something you expected following the incident with photographer Bill Henson. As Phoebe develops, is that something that you think will affect your art and how you come up with ideas?
I try not to let it. I did a painting of her a few years ago; she has no top on in the pool because she was being a mermaid and so was her sister, which was a typical afternoon thing that they would do. But a state gallery didn't want to show the work because it had a nipple in it and that's the kind of problematic area that we're in now. It's ludicrous; it's completely absurd because it's not remotely pornographic, it's nudity – those are two very different things. Yet there are all these new guidelines about working with children that would maybe prevent a major museum showing work like that because of fear and I think it's a very problematic time to be exploring work like that.

When it comes to art and the way it is perceived, you've been quoted as saying that "art holds fast to the idea that it is relevant, important and enduring. I find this lofty self-importance tedious, and yet I am complicit with it". In your opinion, what role does art play? What do you hope people take away from you work?
I actually don't think too much about that, and I try not to really think about a critical or commercial audience and I think my work is better for it. Part of that quote is that I think a lot of artists worry about making some sort of commentary that so often I think is just not working very well. A lot of my generation of artists are really drawn to political art, that I think for the most part just fails on lots of levels and I think we have to explain a lot as artists. We like to think that there is some sort of important message, that is the work is critically interesting, that we're imparting and I don't think that is always the case.

Michael Zavros's next exhibition, 'A Million Dollars', will be held at Brisbane's Philip Bacon Galleries from 15 November to 10 December, 2016. For more information on the artist and his work, visit michaelzavros.com/

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