Michael Zavros: The Prince

Rockhampton Art Gallery; Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane
16 February – 7 April 2013; 24 May – 7 July 2013

If you said that the paintings and drawings by Michael Zavros in The Prince were an example of appropriation, you would really only be half-right. Although the images that make up this exhibition look, essentially, exactly the same as their sources, their thematic and systematic selection and cropping sets up a subtle dialogue with the viewer, and reveals a great deal about the artist himself.

Richard Prince plays a big part in this exhibition. Zavros has ‘reauthored’ Prince’s famous rephotographs of Marlboro advertisements from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and it is these images that make up a bulk of the exhibition.1 You may think that an appropriation of an appropriation would be a cold, static affair, but instead you are presented with a warm, lovingly crafted image that, apart from the composition, is nothing like its predecessor. The idea that these works are a painting of a photograph of a magazine ad made from a staged photograph becomes inconsequential when you begin to spend time admiring both the astounding technical skill of the art making and the ultra-manly men being depicted. If Richard Prince returned the cowboy to the American public, then Michael Zavros has now put him on a pedestal. This now mythical man (real name [ironically]: Darrell Winfield),2 is effortlessly riding the plains, being tough, smoking, and living forever in a way that the rest of us can only ever dream of. It is somewhat emasculating.

The Suit Suite (1990) is a large series of small paintings of advertising materials promoting high-class men’s fashion, flowing across an entire wall of the gallery. Again, the technicalities of the paintings draw you in, but this time the petite scale makes you physically move closer to the works, half-checking if you can detect an error or see what is in the shine reflection on the shoes. When you do not find what you are looking for, you realise you are very close to an individual painting and cannot effectively take in the whole installation, forcing you backwards until you can comprehend it all again. Without realising it, you have been marched back and forth by a group of faceless men in suits. It feels a little bit like you have been mind controlled by the CIA, in the nicest possible way. But with way more style.

However, these feelings of being made to feel lesser are best articulated through a series of paintings which are best described as pre-digital screen dumps. Three paintings of television screens show John Travolta, Betty White and Madonna. Travolta’s iconic scene from Saturday Night Fever, where he stares into the mirror making his hair perfect, is cropped and blown up to heroic proportions. His eyes are in a fixed, loving stare, meeting yours. But you know you are not the most important person in the room. Heck, you know you rate lower than the comb in his hand. Betty White is shown laughing during the opening credits of ‘The Golden Girls’, her name superimposed across the image. It is a reminder that we do not really laugh at ditsy Rose Nylund; it is the actor who makes us laugh. Madonna arching her back with her red lips parted, in the minds of many, is still the reigning queen of sex. There is nothing we can teach her, no tricks she has not seen. These three paintings blast us with the thoughts of celebrities we can never measure up to, making us feel insecure but also grateful that we can be in their presence at all.

Together these paintings form a sort of portrait of Michael Zavros. He readily admits to painting the things he likes,3 and does so with reverence and a keen eye. The paintings of opulent interiors draped in game-hunting trophies seem like an homage to a world we say we hate, but would secretly love to live. When you think back through the repetitive feelings of inferiority his paintings and drawings dredge up, he is not really putting himself above the viewer; he is one of us. His analytical view of the images he edits from his world view to present to us, make us feel connected. The artist likes what we like, feels what we feel. In the past, the ‘artist’ has been a lonely, tortured soul slaving away to one day be recognised for the genius he is. Zavros pulls that notion down and tells us that he is a regular guy, except that he can paint things a damn sight better.

 

Michael Zavros, Tony combs his hair for Saturday night, 1998. Oil on canvas, 150 x 150cm. Courtesy of the artist. 

Michael Zavros, Prince/Zavros 9, 2012. Oil on board, 14 x 21cm. On long term loan from a private collection 2012. Proposed Gift to Rockhampton Art Gallery under the Federal Government's Cultural Gifts Program. 

Michael Zavros, Prince/Zavros 10, 2012. Oil on board, 13.5 x 19.8cm. Private collection. 

notes: 

1. Zavros, M., interviewed by the author, 15 February 2013.

2. Lichty, R., Darrell Winfield, Marlboro Man, [PDF], Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, UCSF, fhq51b00, c.1977. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/fhq51b00/pdf, accessed 16 February 2013.

3. Zavros, M., op cit.