"If there was another me, what would he be like? Better. Younger, like I used to be. 6 ft 3, broader, fit and really ripped. Smooth like a Classical Greek statue. He wouldn’t drink. A perfected human, but like a placeholder. Melancholy and distant with resignation. I’d call him dad, that strange word that replaced my name and in some ways replaced me."
Michael Zavros is one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary artists. His exacting, hyper-realist paintings of luxury fashion goods, thoroughbred horses and classical interiors have brought the artist critical and commercial acclaim and are as coveted as the objects they depict. Despite the success of these works, or perhaps because of it, Zavros has gradually shifted focus over the past decade, drawing on his own life and family as the principal subjects for his recent paintings.
That the artist has been able to pivot towards more autobiographical content is due in part to his growing public profile. Zavros’ success has afforded him a visibility rare for an Australian artist. He is regularly photographed at the opening of art exhibitions and luxury fashion boutiques and has been the subject of numerous magazine features, often accompanied by images of the photogenic artist and his family at their Brisbane home. Zavros shares studio shots of his paintings, often featuring cameos by his children, with 91,000 (and counting) Instagram followers. The artist’s life has become synonymous with his art to the extent that the two are now indistinguishable. As the New Zealand curator and writer Robert Leonard has observed: ‘He is his own consummate artwork’.
Zavros’ paintings have an unavoidable relationship to photography. First time viewers marvel at the artist’s technical facility, wondering aloud if the work is in fact a photograph. His earlier paintings often adopted the aesthetics of advertising. It was perhaps inevitable then that the artist should begin working directly with the medium. Over the past five years, Zavros has produced a number of photographic self-portraits that play with the conventions of the genre. In Portrait with Sean O’ Pry Zavros cast the American Gen Y model and Instagram star as a substitute for himself. The artist posed the model against a neutral backdrop wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Zavros’, evoking the look of a fashion editorial. In this work, the artist’s surname becomes a brand to be worn, or perhaps more accurately, consumed, like one of his desirable paintings.
A Guy Like Me represents Zavros’ most significant photographic project to date, further collapsing the boundaries between the artist’s life and work. Once again, the artist has used a surrogate, this time a male mannequin whom Zavros has named ‘Dad’. The artist purchased a commercial model online, sculpting a head for the mannequin by hand, which he then had scanned and 3D printed. Zavros’ facial features and hair were airbrushed onto the cast by a specialist car detailer, to the artist’s specifications. ‘I went shopping for the body I wanted’, he wryly notes (3).
Zavros dressed ‘Dad’ in his own designer clothes and aviator sunglasses, and staged the mannequin in a series of situations that would be familiar to anyone who follows the artist’s work or his social media; ‘Dad’ with his vintage Mercedes-Benz; ‘Dad’ with his horse, Thomas. Other images engage with the persona that Zavros has carefully crafted through his work. Dad likes colour for example, in which the shirtless mannequin reclines on a sun-lounger, his eyes covered by cucumber slices, riffs on the artist’s vanity as portrayed in paintings such as Bad Dad 2013.
Images from A Guy Like Me premiered in The Australian newspaper’s glossy monthly magazine Wish earlier this year, illustrating a story about the future of fashion retail. Superficially at least, it’s a fitting context for these images; a seamless integration of Zavros’ image, lifestyle and art. Yet, as with all of the artist’s work, there is more going on beyond the surface of these photographs that warrants closer attention.
In Dad Likes Winter, the mannequin is pictured with the artist’s children at Main Beach on the Gold Coast, where Zavros was born and raised. The artist’s two daughters are posed alongside ‘Dad’ wearing casual, beach-y clothes in matching pale tones. Zavros’ son wears a vintage blue and white ‘key’ knit over his shoulders, a reference to the artist’s Greek heritage. ‘Dad’ is pictured in a similar geometric knit, unbuttoned, placing the mannequin’s abs on prominent display. Far from being a natural, family photo, the image is highly choreographed. Printed large-scale for exhibition, the photograph reads as a billboard-ready advertisement for the artist’s lifestyle.
What, if anything, does Dad Likes Winter reveal about the artist himself? Is he a bad parent for using his kids as props in a photo? Or are they just playing to the camera because that’s what their father asked them to do? The work doesn’t offer up any clear answers. And that’s the point. Zavros loads his images with autobiographical and inter-textual references that seek to distract from their artifice without giving too much away.
The shadow of another figure is visible in the lower right corner of Dad Likes Winter: that of the artist himself, taking the photograph. By inserting himself in this way Zavros reveals the constructed nature of the image, and the series as a whole. The artist’s use of a mannequin also obviously renders the work fictional. For all of the care and precision that Zavros exerts in creating his seductive images, ‘Dad’ is resolutely a shop mannequin. Although it speaks to the artist’s interest in the tropes of luxury fashion and visual merchandising, it is curious that Zavros, an artist known for his hyper-real images, has chosen such a hokey stand-in for himself. In Dad Likes Summer, the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the join between the mannequin’s neck and head; and the airbrushed highlights on the model’s hairline are so noticeable as to be comical. These seemingly minor yet deliberate details reveal the futility of the artist’s stated intention of creating ‘a better version of me’. (4)
It is interesting to consider Zavros’ images in relation to the contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman. Since the late 1970s, Sherman has produced a coherent but continually evolving body of self-portraiture using costumes, make up and disguises to inhabit various character types, from film stars to clowns and socialites. Through her images, Sherman has become one of the most recognisable artists in the world, yet she remains largely unknowable. The assumption that in presenting her own likeness, Sherman’s images somehow contain the artist’s ‘true’ self is too simplistic. Art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau has instead posited that:
“The material presence of the author/artist/subject is by no means identical to their existential presence. Hence the suggestive aspect of the use of body doubles as it operates to destabilize notions of the unique individual”. (5)
Similarly, by using a stand-in for himself, Zavros implicitly acknowledges that his photographs are not self-portraits; rather they represent a character the artist has cultivated through his art and public life over the past two decades. Few have mastered the performative aspect of being a contemporary artist as deftly as Zavros. A Guy Like Me offers up the aspirational lifestyle of a successful artist, one who knows exactly how much to reveal; and in such a way that his viewers will undoubtedly return for more.