IN CONVERSATION

SCOTT REDFORD AND MICHAEL ZAVROS

Dina Ibrahim: An article by Sebastian Smee in The Australian (24 March 2007) states that Michael Zavros’s literal tendency in art comes out of Minimalism, and Scott you also mentioned your fascination with it. In your opinion, what relationship does your work have with Minimalism?

Scott Redford: Smee’s comments about literalism and Minimalism come from Michael Fried’s famous essay ‘Art & Objecthood’. Many conservative leading critics like this essay as Fried has a quasi spiritual bent and conservatives see art as a quasi religion, so it all fits. Interestingly Robert Smithson, who himself showed a very strong religious bent in his early works, was the very first to attack Fried, perhaps seeing something of himself there.

Having said that, there is no doubt that Minimalism has been a challenge and an inspiration to many and not just to artists who make obviously minimal-like works. All those interested in post-war Western advanced art engaged with the minimalist tendency in some way, even if to reject it. I have long been engaged with the maximal/minimal dialectic in my various projects. Often this is very literal, such as a series of works on paper from 1986 titled A Description of Black which dealt primarily with Peter Booth’s minimalist black paintings and his later turn to apocalyptic figuration (another form of ‘black’). In those works I produced automatic images in black gloss enamel on paper that ranged from monochrome to figurative and these were exhibited in long rows.

My ’80s and ’90s black combines (which I have returned to as props for Reinhardt Dammn the feature film project) were literal minimal/maximal. Although there was a chaotic profusion of readymade objects in the combines when viewed under normal lighting conditions, painting them uniform gloss black meant they could look just like empty black rectangles if there was no cross lighting.

Minimalism is a key to all my work but so are Pop and Conceptual art, theory too, all in equal measure.

Michael Zavros: Yes, objecthood. And Minimalism if you squint. The best thing about the Smee review was that it was across two whole pages with four (FOUR) reproductions! Ever since then I followed Madonna’s advice and I no longer read my reviews, I weigh them. Madonna got this advice from Warhol. A few months after the review I met Sebastian Smee at my show in Melbourne. He was nothing like I expected. Softly spoken, good looking and wearing this yellow cashmere sweater. He asked if I liked the piece? I said I was delighted with it (thinking FOUR BIG PICTURES). The next week he wrote in his Melbourne round up that I was good looking and well dressed. And something about my show.

Dina Ibrahim: One of the aspects that characterises both your work is the blurring of the line between popular culture and high art. Is this an influence of growing up on the Gold Coast? What other influences did growing up there have on your work?

Scott Redford: For me the Gold Coast was perceived as a very marginal place, apart from ‘mainstream’ Australian culture—the hard won culture of Melbourne and Sydney. It’s still so really. I found solace in texts such as Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi which looks at a locale in that place’s own terms rather than in a preordained hierarchical way; to judge Las Vegas on its own terms and not by some imposed ‘golden rule’ or standard from elsewhere, studied in an anthropological way I suppose.

Of course this would lead me to view all art in this way—and I had a post-modern sympathy anyway—so the so-called blurring of high and low seemed like a fait accompli, something that had already happened. The realisation of this fact is actually what will be engaging the art world for a long time to come. First there was post-modern mourning and then a stupefied ‘rabbit in the headlight’ numbness and then a slowly dawning sense that yes, a new century has rendered many a dearly held faith no longer necessary. It’s amusing to watch how fine art (which is amongst the most conservative of all endeavours) slowly drags itself into the light.

Michael Zavros: Is it more just a case of the Australian condition, the way everything is mediated through reproduction, that tyranny of distance, of learning about art through reproduction?

The Gold Coast I grew up in was a sort of non-place. I didn’t grow up in Surfers Paradise: I grew up in the hinterland, in the country practically, and I hardly ever went to Surfers, but obviously I was aware of the city lights that informed my teenage existence. I felt foreign because I looked different—like a ‘wog’—but I guess that’s more an Australian story than a Gold Coast story. In terms of influence, I think it’s probably the case that the shiny veneer and luxury of the appearance of the Gold Coast rubbed off on me, yet my own childhood was far removed from this and much more bucolic.

I’ve always been more interested in looking at magazines than at art exhibitions. Newsagencies are my favourite shops. I still spend more time in the gallery gift store than the gallery itself.

The pursuit of a perfect existence described to glossy perfection in catalogues and magazines is so compelling and pervasive. Stories in magazines inform my desire to construct a world that appears to celebrate all of this… on the surface.

Dina Ibrahim: Scott, you mentioned that you would accept the tag ‘Regional Post-Modernist’ and Michael, your work gets labelled ‘Photorealism’ on many occasions. Without getting too caught up in all the ‘isms’, how would you best contextualise your works?

Michael Zavros: I use photorealism only as a term to easily describe my technique because I certainly don’t see myself as a photorealist in the same way the photorealists of the 1970s would have. Photography is merely a tool for me, information for my drawing, painting and sculpture. What I paint is more important than how I paint. Or maybe I should say just as important. If anything my work has moved toward something more like hyperrealism at times, because increasingly I feel that a photograph is only as good as the information in it, and often it’s not enough. Certainly in terms of photorealism I’m not interested in people suspending their disbelief and believing it to be a photograph. If we’re talking ‘isms, my work is probably better described as Narcissism.

Scott Redford: I’m OK with ‘Regional Post-Modernist’. It’s as good as any. And terms are needed for people to navigate changing conditions. Really I’m a post conceptual artist but all art is that now.

The difference between the local and the ‘new global’ is firming up as a key subject for ideas at present. Meaning the term ‘global’ seems too general already and too reliant on a universal that doesn’t actually exist.

Dina Ibrahim: I am interested in this point of local vs. global, could you elaborate on that?

Scott Redford: I think this whole ‘Globalism’ now only partly exists. The human brain can only focus on a certain number of ideas at once, some say it’s four to five things, others eight. But after that our brains turn to mush. We can’t cope. That is what will happen with all this information. We just can’t digest thousands of new artists and ideas. It won’t work and we will all turn inward and go local and filter information, so therefore many of the old hierarchies will stay. It’s just how we as humans deal with overload. Also new thinking on the subject says that we do indeed hold an ‘essence’ in objects and people and we are hardwired to work out what we think is true and what is not. Hence the Gold Coast can be cast as ‘un-true’ or inauthentic culture and Melbourne, Sydney or Indigenous culture as being ‘real’ culture. When in fact they are all just culture full stop—it’s all culture.

Ultimately culture doesn’t reside in the object but resides in the mind of the viewer. As Jeff Koons says, ‘Art is about something you carry around inside yourself; it’s not about the objects—they’re just carriers of the ability to stimulate and activate the viewer’s mental and physical state’.1

Michael Zavros: Is there a distinction between local and global anymore? The distinction seems to have collapsed completely, and yet Australian culture is still spoken about in localities—Melbourne vs. Sydney, etcetera—and the criticism that it is parochial seems fair sometimes. I like to think my work looks very un-Australian, which probably makes it very Australian; it is a conflation of a million influences mediated through the lens of popular culture at a remove. It certainly travels well for it.

Dina Ibrahim: Other than growing up on the Gold Coast and your art being seemingly Pop, do you think there is a thread that ties aspects of your works together?

Scott Redford: Maybe, but it wasn’t evident to either of us till Robert Leonard pointed it out. Robert notes visual and conceptual similarities. Really very basic ones such as the use of standard interior decoration imagery which could be said to also reflect Louise Lawler and her photographs of arrangements of artworks by other artists. Or the use of reflective metal or male model images and vanitas imagery; simple stuff like that. But also a perverse refusal to blandly illustrate the standard ‘PC’ line in art.

Michael Zavros: Yes, we both like shiny things. My two girls are like this. You can’t shop with them. They’re distracted by anything shiny and their little eyes glaze over.

Sorry, what was the question? Certainly curatorial context is everything.

I think we both make work that contains mongrel—there isn’t a lot of self doubt. So many artists concern themselves with how their work may be interpreted. You can smell it, a kind of critical desperation. But I don’t think either of us do this—I certainly don’t—I think we both have a singular aesthetic. I truly do make what I like. And I like beauty. I’m addicted to eye candy.

Dina Ibrahim: In his recent review of your exhibition at the IMA, Andrew Frost suggests that the thread which ties the show together, to him, is how the works reflect off one another, sometimes literally. Do you agree with him?2

Scott Redford: It became obvious that Robert Leonard chose works that were to go together even at the risk of over-obviousness, such as a reflective metal plane in front of a painting with chrome barbells in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. And yes I largely agree with Frost.

Michael Zavros: Well the reflection goes on and on. Literally in the big painting, Echo, there’s an eternal mirroring between the Hall’s mirrors and the chrome gym gear. Of course the reflection is caught in Scott’s plane. The interiors seem to mirror each other, as do other groupings. I’ve always reflected upon an intense mirroring between what I’m painting and how I’m rendering it. And then there’s the narcissism, the self-regard. Even in the video, my first video work, my daughter is performing for herself in the mirror that’s turned away from us. It’s completely self-referential.

Dina Ibrahim: The IMA curatorial blurb on the exhibition labelled both yourselves and the show as ‘post-critical’, claiming that ‘although Zavros’s work is not critical of its subjects, it is sharply self-reflexive’, and goes on to say that Redford now ‘in the twenty-first century seemed to turn his back on criticality to celebrate the Gold Coast’. At the end of this wall text, the viewer is left with the question: ‘Are Zavros and Redford simply affirmative and uncritical, or do their projects offer critical leverage on our desire for criticality?’ Frost answers this question in his review by saying that ‘Redford and Zavros, for the most part, balance their practices on this precarious edge between meaning and decor, sometimes rather humorously highlighting this conflict’. Do you agree with Frost, and where does your art stand in terms of this ‘post-critical’ notion?

Michael Zavros: If we cut out the ending from Robert’s blurb, the words ‘for criticality’, my works certainly offer critical leverage on desire: I frequently make works that speak about coveting and desire, unrequited love and the loss of love. It’s desire in an economic and emotional sense.

I agree with Andrew Frost. I think my work draws strength from walking that tightrope—I play with that a lot—suggesting that even I feel a sense of ennui with my own work, as much as I describe a kind of contemporary ennui.

It used to concern me that the glossy veneer I so cultivate prevents certain people from seeing little but their own reflection, but I know that looking at art is actually looking for something that speaks to you. I think problems arise when we look for something specific. In that sense, maybe the narcissism I self deprecatingly describe is uncomfortable for some.

Dina Ibrahim: Frost also mentioned that the show offers a ‘clever-clever double take on the idea of surface without forsaking the very thing it claims to have ejected from the palace of mirrors: criticality’. Do you think the curatorial approach succeeded in achieving that?

Scott Redford: I think I can answer this question and the one before by stating a few things I believe in. The tradition of anti-bourgeois critique which has underpinned the majority of Modern art thinking has reached its use-by-date. This thinking refuses to accept that art has reached a mass status today and that this makes art more powerful and not less so. The 19th century bourgeoisie were the old middle classes of the right/left divide and those people have morphed into nothing more threatening than any old Joe. Basically we are all middle class, give or take, and how can progressive art be against the very classes who were once mainly working class and are now not. Phrases like ‘aspirational’ still have bad connotations with some but really we are all that.

Also with the rise of the middle classes in China we are seeing a communist country become the best capitalists yet! So where does that leave the old anti-bourgeois mindset? Add to that the rising middle class in India and Brazil, etcetera. We can see that they regard consumption of fine art now as their right, as it once was the right of only the upper class of the West in, say, the 19th century.

Leisure time has allowed people to shape their lives not according to needs but according to wants; John Maynard Keynes wrote of this. Ideas such as those of ‘the experience society’ described by Gerhard Schulze outline how the cultivation of an aesthetic of the self is today a mass phenomenon (hence Youtube, reality TV, Facebook, myspace). So this idea of post-criticality is being driven by economic and social forces outside of art discourses and not from within art. These old Modernist anti-bourgeois discourses are now seen as romantic and dated, more interested in the events surrounding 1968 (as in the ‘Revolutions Forms That Turn’ 2008 Sydney Biennale) than in 2010.

Many artists around the world engage with decor and surface now. In Clement Greenberg’s time avant-gardism meant ‘an emigration from the markets of capitalism’, meaning an absolute rejection of popular taste and the cultivation of an aristocratic fine art mindset. Now artists want the opposite. They want a seamless integration of their art into the flow of production and consumption that is culture. Frost is correct, this art is still critical, meaning it does engage at all intelligent levels in an investigation of what contemporary images and objects mean and how they are appreciated (consumed). It’s just that artists now don’t feel the need to subscribe to old ideas of criticality but seek out new ways to show the world back to itself.

Sure many still want art and culture to be alternative, but increasingly a large chunk of artists have decided that this attitude is a cul-de-sac that is itself questionable (think Herbert Marcuse’s theory of ‘affirmative culture’). It’s much more exciting to go WITH the flow, to tempt burnout and be dismissed as shallow by an ‘alternative’ that themselves are clichés: stock types from the casting central.

Michael Zavros: Robert Leonard keeps bringing us back to the notion of surface via a literal one. My work concerns itself with surface constantly, metaphorically and literally.

Dina Ibrahim: But do you agree that ‘art today has taken a post-critical turn’?

Michael Zavros: If anything, my work is self-critical. I work in a vacuum, I rarely leave my studio, my engagement with a proscribed ‘criticality’ is nil, and so the argument seems almost redundant. I seldom read text even in relation to my own work.

It is sort of amusing really—one’s work is always authored in a myriad different ways.

Scott Redford: Many artists now are very much attempting to go beyond the ‘critical’ phase. Some go back to ’80s critical art, such as work by Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Cady Noland or even earlier to Feminist art, to take the projects of those artists to another level. It’s not enough to cope with the escalating art market by relying on some redemptive strategy of pure, authentic (Identity), or ‘critical’ art to somehow offset the reality that all of us participate in—the ‘violence of the real economy’ as Anne Pontégnie has put it.

As Louise Lawler has said, a lot of supposedly ‘political’ art now is recognised and invited by the institutions of art; therefore it has lost its agency and become redemptive or palliative. ‘Political’ has become an accepted house-style akin to genres such as landscape, portrait, still life or abstract.

To quote Anne Pontégnie again: ‘…since the exponential development of the contemporary art market and its integration into the leisure industry, it (some forms of art) has sought refuge in a “political” posture characterised by a formal conservatism (the documentary) and a serious-mindedness tinged with Puritanism. Paradoxically, for this alternative, the “other”—refugees, the exploited, the excluded—offers a welcome let-out both of questioning one’s own means of expression and an evacuation of the effects produced.’3

Jacques Ranciere recently condemned ‘the circulation of stereotypes that critique stereotypes, giant stuffed animals that denounce our infantilisation, media images that denounce the media, spectacular installations that denounce the spectacle…’4 We could also add in artworks that denounce racism that are in themselves partly racist.

Dina Ibrahim: I agree with Jacques Ranciere. It seems that in contemporary times, you have to belong to a particular stereotype (or minority) in order to criticise it.

Scott Redford: Kelley Walker, as a white Southern guy, purposefully uses ‘black’ imagery. He uses the same images that Warhol used for Race Riot but taken by another press photographer and from a slightly different angle, but at the very same time. Interesting, if a bit ‘circular’, which is his point. He also does magazine cover blowups with sexy black chicks on them and he then lathers toothpaste on the scanner or melted dark or white chocolate and scans that onto the image. Very provocative but his point is: Why as a white man can’t I? 

Dina Ibrahim: Scott, was My Beautiful Polar Bear prompted by environmental issues?

Scott Redford: No it wasn’t, although I worry about the environment like everyone does. This is the first Reinhardt Dammn prop for the movie work, but that’s a whole other project.

Basically I found a small bear in ceramic in a junk shop and liked it and got Michael Littler to make a bigger version. I wanted to make a very accessible and likeable work, loveable even. It was my breaking away from the post-conceptual Queer work I had been associated with in the ’90s. I wanted to go in the opposite direction and the polar bear seemed just right. At first I wanted them mass produced and sold in K Mart, very MASS! But that proved difficult—it would be less so now with Asian manufacturing.

I like that audiences like the bears regardless of who made them, this is exciting and important for me. The crushed cars—which the bears rest on top of at the IMA show—were a designer nod to John Chamberlain’s sculpture and furniture and weren’t meant to have any meaning except that they looked good and excited the viewer. The goal is to show production and consumption as it constitutes culture now.

Dina Ibrahim: You finding a small ceramic bear in a junk shop … I love it! Recently, I had a talk with Cai Guo-Qiang in New York and I asked him about his influences. He said that when he is on a plane coming back from a place he has visited to inspect a space for a site-specific installation, for example, he opens the in-flight magazine and whatever random image appears, he does a work based on that! It’s sometimes just that simple.

Scott Redford: In the end it’s all a piece of the world. I just trust what interests me visually, what causes a small ‘annoyance’ or excitement in my head. It’s like the bit of sand that gets into an oyster to create the pearl I suppose, but that sounds romantic. Often the most debased things are good inspiration, over-used and clichéd things. Junk shop art is usually more exciting than ‘good’ art.

Michael Zavros: Surely good art can be good sometimes? I always thought the bear was some clever riff on SeaWorld planting this Arctic icon on the sunny Goldie and that you’d channelled this via that exquisite Deco sculpture by François Pompon.

I always wanted to buy one, in the Tiffany blue. See this is precisely why artists should never open their mouths.

Dina Ibrahim: Michael, your video at the IMA We dance in the studio is absolutely hypnotic! Can you tell me a bit about it? How and why did it come about? Is video a medium you’d like to explore further?

Michael Zavros: Yes, video is definitely something I want to explore more. There is a major work I want to get into but it’ll have to wait until next year. I’m glad you found it compelling. Video demands of its audience so much more than any other medium. I hardly ever sit through a video in a gallery.

Robert asked me if I’d make one to complement Scott’s fairly seamless traversing of different media. The performance was really something that was taking place every afternoon in my studio and I found it so completely compelling yet confronting.

Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi is such a perfect moment in pop. Despite her post-critical proclamations that she makes ‘soulless electronic pop’, the song is full of knowing winks with a multitude of layers, full of pleading and pathos. And for a few weeks, my four and a half year old seemed to channel it, replete with her interpretation of avant-garde fashion and monster moves.

And that’s why I painted the Bill Henson in The Lioness. Henson so beautifully articulates a fleeting moment. Then I painstakingly documented it, thus documenting time in a different way. And the fleeting moment of the video has passed. My daughter has stopped coming to my studio to dance. She’s over it.

Dina Ibrahim: Michael, what do you consider to be a strong painting?

Michael Zavros: I really don’t know. But it’s just like supermodels. They can be perfect but it’s that X factor everybody wants. Who knows what that is?

Dina Ibrahim: Your work has a very interesting relationship with photography: your paintings aim at copying photography yet criticising it (with your Debaser series for example). Can you tell me more about what you think of that relationship?

Michael Zavros: Those Debaser drawings feel much more about subverting the process of drawing than any criticism of photography—lovingly rendering something and then erasing it.

Dina Ibrahim: How do you resist going that extra step that takes your paintings from the real to the hyperreal?

Michael Zavros: Most of the time I just don’t see the point of that level of actual realism. It’s hyperrealism outside of painting that I find more interesting. I prefer to create the illusion of fine detail. Besides, anything more would take too long and I want to create a larger body of work rather than two or three works a year. I think the smaller paintings are different because they invite a close inspection, an intimate engagement, so I need to get in and paint the whole little world.

I’ve just finished a painting that is deliberately more hyperreal because I wanted to deny the surface a little more and create a more trompe l’oeil realism. I moved away from photography by using composite photographs for a more complex focus and something more tangible. It’s a painting of my daughter Phoebe, dead. It’s to her exact proportions. I needed those extra, precious tiny details in order to deliver something more difficult to look at, more confronting, more real. Every hair.

Dina Ibrahim: What was the thought process that led to arriving at this brilliant fusion of traditional painting technique and contemporary subject matter (the self-reflective)?

Michael Zavros: The genesis of this wasn’t especially deliberate or conscious. As a kid who just loved to draw and spent all day doing it, old-school processes or technique were like my default setting. A few years ago I felt dissatisfied with what I was making but I also found it necessary to challenge how I was making the work. Technically, it had become too easy for me and it was boring.

Dina Ibrahim: Your paintings are always less and more, there is certainly an intellectual exercise in looking at them, yet at the same time they are mere decorations, shiny, sugary sweet, shallow objects. I examine them, and it’s almost as though my brain sends out waves, some of which get absorbed by the painting and manage to get through to the depth of it, but the rest bounce back as if proving the futility of attempting to contemplate the surface, and I find myself stuck in this flux, this constant back and forth… How do you achieve this effect?

Michael Zavros: I have always cultivated a certain cool distance. I think it’s very necessary when the work is, as you suggest, very accessible on some levels. Central to this is removing any trace of the artist’s hand and leaving that banal brushless surface. This is the same for drawing or sculpture. I think even the video is like this.

Dina Ibrahim: Finally, would you like to mention anything else?

Scott Redford: My work at ‘vs.’ is about what is ‘allowed’ in art and what isn’t. I got into a lot of strife for the Gold Coast themed work in terms of people being disgusted by it. I could see how curators just couldn’t stand it. Which is fine as I meant it as an affront. The problem is that people confuse political imagery and content in art with real politics. They are not the same. Politics in art is about form as much as anything. It’s about being political with one’s choices and one’s exclusions, but it is also about the form of the work, its supports, its actual facture and intent. Abstract art is also political. Wolfgang Tillmans’s work is crucial here as well as Gerhard Richter (who Tillmans has looked at).

I do think both Michael and I have a political relationship to what we make and in the effect we want our works to elicit. It’s not perhaps obviously political and some would say we both edge on conservatism. To which I would say NOT … but then I would say that. There’s no business like show business!

July 2010

notes: 

1. Dorothea von Hantlemann, ‘Why Koons?’, Jeff Koons: Popeye Series, Serpentine Gallery, London/Koenig Books, London, 2009 pp.49-53. Print.

2. Frost, Andrew, ‘Let’s get ready to RUMBLE’, TheArtLife, 18 June, 2010. Website accessed 1 July 2010.

3. In Pontégnie, Anne and Aupetitallot, Yves (eds), Kelley Walker, JRP Ringer, Zurich, 2007, p.67. Print.

4. Carnevale, Fulvia and Kelsey, John, ‘In conversation with Jacques Ranciere’, Artforum, March 2007, pp.264-266. Print. 

This interview was conducted at the time of the exhibition ‘Scott Redford vs. Michael Zavros’ at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Scott Redford and Michael Zavros both grew up on the Gold Coast. They are both now Brisbane-based. Dina Ibrahim is an art writer and curator based between Brisbane and Dubai.