Michael Zavros | Art Basel Hong Kong 2015
15.03 - 17.03
Starkwhite will present an exhibition by Australian artist Michael Zavros at Art Basel Hong Kong from 15 to 17 March 2015. Zavros will show a suite of new paintings alongside a series of photographic works featuring male model superstar, Sean O’Pry.
Zavros is an aesthete: he paints beautiful things beautifully. His subjects include fairytale palaces, gardens and follies; up-market men’s fashion, luxury cars and jewellery; Lipizzaner dressage horses, Japanese pedigree Onagadori chickens and beautiful men.
It is often said that his subject is beauty itself, but it is more generally the symbols of status. His canon of beauty is aspirational – keyed to notions of privilege, tradition and the faux-aristocratic taste of luxury brands.
The fetishisation of high fashion is another thread in Zavros’ work. In a recent interview with Auckland Art Gallery Director Rhana Devenport, he said:
“Fashion consumes itself. It constantly makes itself redundant, in order to renew itself. 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. Fashion appeals because it doesn’t take itself too seriously; unlike art which takes itself very seriously. Fashion isn’t going to save the world, but neither is art. I like fashion and I enjoy the fantasies it that fashion magazines create. More than anything else in popular culture, fashion articulates a utopia, a perfect world. I’m seduced by this.”
Zavros’ interest in beauty, fashion and luxury informs a new suite of works produced for his solo exhibition at Art Basel Hong Kong.
His Self portrait as saint with Sean O’Pry / Versace casts one of the world’s most successful male models as a Renaissance icon. O’Pry is highly sought after for print and catwalk. He is the star of Taylor Swift’s most recent film clip Blank Space (466,971,445 YouTube views at time of writing) and boasts 263,000 Instagram followers and 66,400 Twitter followers. His beauty has become iconic and bankable – he is the patron saint of contemporary culture’s obsession with youth and beauty. In Zavros’ photograph O’Pry holds aloft his own makeshift halo, a gilded Versace plate, while he is formally beatified by the adoring gaze of the viewer. Discus Thrower with Sean O’Pry / Versace references art history, specifically the original Classical Greek sculpture held by the British Museum (discobulus), making analogies between O’Pry and the sacred Greek concept of perfect Hellenic proportions.
In another image O’Pry wears a t-shirt with a logo, hand applied by the artist. O’Pry adopts a classic model pose of casual insouciance as he endorses the brand on the t-shirt (Zavros). He, and we, are in collusion; the consumed and the consumer. But what exactly is for sale? Is this an advertisement or a self-portrait of the artist, in which O’Pry is an avatar for Zavros? No and yes. Zavros’ work explores narcissism – namely his own. O’Pry is the embodiment of a projected (the artist’s) perfection.
Zavros met O’Pry in Los Angeles en route to New York from Milan quite serendipitously after actively seeking the model for some three months whilst in residence in the Australia Council Greene Street studio in Soho.
At Art Basel Hong Kong, Zavros will also present a suite of still life paintings featuring flowers arranged to suggest animal shapes – white lilies arranged in a white shell vase resemble a swan, Lilly of the Valley set in a tall black vase to resemble an ostrich and Bird of Paradise arranged to conjur up a red cock. New York Sundae, as the name suggests, employs hydrangea flowers arranged in a crystal bowl that evokes a generous ice cream sundae. Witty in their allusions to art history, these new works are a mélange of baroque and pop influences.
The paintings were produced during a residency at the Australia Council’s Greene Street studio in New York.
“I bought armfuls of flowers to the studio”, says Zavros. “I contrive the forms like an old-fashioned florist, using wire and various props. Flowers are short lived and it’s hard to find certain blooms at certain times in Australia. In New York however flowers are available all year round; you can buy roses from Columbia in the depths of winter. There is a rarefied air to the work, a layer of luxury embedded within them. The constructions too were very involved. They take several hours to assemble, before I can make a photograph for the painting. The whole confection is a baroque folly, nature made better, more pretty, but also evidence of pointless excess. I’m reminded of the mythical hybrid creatures formed for feasts in the Middle Ages: peacocks, ducks and deer would be fused into culinary fabrications for the amusement of guests. Regarding mortality, these still life works are my meditation on the memento mori tradition – beauty spent.”
The photographs and still life paintings will be staged alongside Zavros’ most famous painting, Bad Dad (2013). This seminal work represents a practice that curator/writer Robert Leonard says can be viewed in relation to what Australian art historian Rex Butler has described as a post-critical turn.
“We have inherited the idea that artists should be critical; that they should reject received ideas, shock the bourgeoisie, rock the boat. And yet these days, some prominent art seems to be on an entirely different track, preferring instead to be appealing, entertaining, and affirmative.
“Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami exemplify the change. They produce spectacular, crowd-pleasing, high concept art. Their works involve high-production values, necessitate armies of fabricators and are possibly only because hey have access budgets, methods and platforms more typically associated with the entertainment industry.
“The post-critical turn increasingly informs the conditions under which artists work, changing the terns of reference, changing expectations. Michael Zavros not only feeds this post-critical moment, he exemplifies it.”
Robert Leonard, chief curator at the City Gallery Wellington and former director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA)
Zavros’ project encompasses references to his life – his love of horses and chickens, his children, his possessions and pleasures. But more than this, it encompasses his life itself. While some rail against the false consciousness created by advertising, pointing to the gulf between its representations and life as lived, Zavros’ real life proves them wrong by catching up with his fantasy. Zavros is increasingly able to enjoy the lifestyle he depicts, to become what he paints – life imitates art. He is his own consummate artwork. The handsome, well-groomed and well-heeled artist has become a staple of stage-managed personality profiles, best-dressed lists and VIP rooms. This charming man enjoys a symbiotic relationship with lifestyle magazines. The admiration is mutual: the magazines affirm the artist that affirms them. Zavros’ media visibility is currently so high (in Australia) that we cannot see the work ‘in itself’; we must read it in relation to the life (albeit totally mediated by the media). Thus for all its appeal to old school virtues of fine draftsmanship and patient rendering, Zavros’ work could also belong to a lineage of conceptual-art projects that explore the collapse of art into life.
As Leonard concludes: “In the consistency, coherency and cunning of his post-criticality, Michael Zavros cuts an unusual figure. Other artists are rated, curated and collected. Other artists are profiled in the glossies, are well connected and live the good life. Other artists nag the boundaries between life and art. But Zavros has tied these thoughts together and granted them a force, clarity and self-consciousness of a project – a paradigm.”