Michael Zavros: “Everyone wanted to be alternative but they all looked the same.”

Art Life , Interviews Nov 12, 2013 17 Comments

Michael Zavros latest solo exhibition opened recently in Brisbane. Sharne Wolff asks the artists some tough questions about fashion, appropriation and the rough critical ride his recent work has received from former wedding guests…


Michael Zavros, Warhol/Richter/Zavros, charcoal on canary yellow paper, 59.5 x 84cm?

SW. Were you always going to be an artist?

MZ. Yes.

SW. It’s like there are two versions of Michael Zavros – the down-home kind of guy who paints in Crocs and singlet in the farm studio with the kids hanging around, and then the MZ who wears lurid designer jackets and fancy shoes to openings. Are they the same person?

MZ. Lurid? I guess I don’t see the disconnect. I just wear what feels right at the time. Crocs are great. They’re tough but very soft to wear, like getting a foot massage all day while I stand on concrete. And they’re snake proof. I’m hoping to be sponsored by Crocs. The art world reminds me a bit of art school. When I got to art school (Queensland College of Art) in the mid 90s most of the girls wore nighties with Doc Martens and guys wore old menswear from the 70s with Doc Martens. I just wore gym gear cause I liked going to the gym at lunch. Everyone wanted to be alternative but they all looked the same.

SW. The new exhibition is titled ‘Charmer’ with a large part of the series dedicated prestige-branded ties painted to resemble dancing snakes. Who is the Charmer?

MZ. The charmer is the snake. It’s my eyes that glaze over. The self-satisfied seductive cobra hypnotizes me. I don’t think about my audience so much.

SW. Where did you get those ties?

MZ. I have collected them for years. Alison buys them for me or people give them to me. Most of them are vintage, beautiful pieces of silk, and out of fashion.

SW. As the only son of a Greek migrant father and an Irish mother who grew up in Brisbane with “wog like” looks [your words] – do you think your art deals with your Greek identity and/or with a specific masculinity?

MZ. Yes, what you said. I read that everything I make is a quasi self-portrait and I think this is probably true.

SW. You’ve been described as “an aesthete [who] …paints beautiful things beautifully”. Is beauty the (only) subject of your art? Why are these objects not simply decorative?

MZ. The beauty of things does not preclude their intellect or content, for me anyway. I do think it is interesting that beauty is still a pejorative term in contemporary art.

SW. Your art often appropriates or comments on the work of well-known artists – Richard Prince, Jeff Koons etc. In this show (and the previous exhibition at Griffith University), there are several paintings that reproduce Prince’s cowboy photographs – which are themselves appropriated works. Rex Butler called this “an idea pushed too far”, while the wall text for the Uni show (quoting Robert Leonard) states that by not deconstructing or critiquing your original subjects, “Zavros flaunts his lack of criticality”. What’s your response?

MZ. I don’t respond. I don’t think it’s my place. I just make the stuff and I have no interest in defending it. But I do think criticism is a good thing. It helps you build a framework around what you do and why you do it. Generally if your work is very bad, it’s just ignored. I’ve learned that if criticism is unfair someone else will defend it. Nearly a decade ago Ashley Crawford responded in The Age to a nutty Butler on Zavros catalogue essay saying ‘its bizarre at best…its like Butler hasn’t even seen the work in question’. Robert and Rex make a similar argument but just come down on different sides. One thinks the work is good, the other reckons it’s bad. Actually I don’t think Rex thinks the work is bad; his flimsy platforms have nothing to do with the work. There is a level of spite that goes to the personal nature of the writing. It’s sad you know. He came to our wedding.Hang on did I just respond? You tricked me Art Life.

SW. Warhol/Richter/Zavros is a drawing of a skull on canary yellow paper. The title suggests you see yourself in the same company as those famous artists. Is this a narcissistic gesture or are you mocking yourself?

MZ. On a good day, the former – on a bad day, the latter. Mostly the title is just a didactic reference to the lineage of an image like that. Lovingly rendered pop. Maybe it rescues it from being just another skull.

SW. What are the best and worst things that have been said in the press about your work?

MZ. I was definitely more elated or horrified early in my career when what was being said seemed to matter. Approbation, sometimes over pages by people like Bruce James or Benjamin Genocchio or Sebastian Smee really excited me especially because at the time nobody was making anything like what I wanted to make. I don’t remember much of the ‘worst’. In recent years I was naively upset by some of the non-art world press responses to the painting of my daughter Phoebe that won the Moran. A lot of people hated it and I made the mistake of wading through pages of comments on various online articles. What upsets people is actually what the work drew its strength from. It got to me because the work was collaboration between Phoebe and I, and I guess I felt exposed and protective.

SW. Australians are well known for their distaste of anyone whose success elevates them over their peers, deservedly or otherwise. Artists like yourself, Ben Quilty and Shaun Gladwell are sometimes criticised for being too popular. Do you ever feel like an art world tall poppy?

MZ. Yes. I love that Morrissey song ‘We hate it when our friends become successful’. It’s no coincidence that most successful artists get out of town. I much prefer to live and work in a vacuum. My work can be a part of the art world; I don’t have to.

SW. You’re a leading Queensland artist and your shows pull in the crowds yet QAGOMA has only ever acquired one small painting (with several more donated this year). Has this been a disappointment for you?

MZ. Yes. For whatever reason, the Gallery doesn’t recognise my practice. As an emerging artist it felt like a problem that the Gallery should refuse to show or collect my work. It’s no longer my problem. My first state collection was Tasmania in 2005 and by 2010 the National Gallery had made a big acquisition with The Lioness. Last year AGNSW used their $80k Bulgari Art Award to acquire a work. With experience though I’ve resolved to go where I’m wanted rather than beat my head against doors that won’t open.

SW. How does it feel to be an artist in Queensland these days – do you think that we’re witnessing a return to the ‘bad ‘ol days’ of the 1970s and 80s?

MZ. I have read only today about a suite of new cuts to Queensland visual arts. It’s certainly a difficult time to be an arts organisation in Queensland but it might be useful to look at it as a call to arms, to raise the bar and to turn the negative into a positive. So much great art came out of Queensland in those ‘bad old days’. It was an active politicised art scene. Artists can thrive in adversity. Artists are programmed to be problem solvers, to think outside the square, to be resilient. We need to find that resolve now.

SW. Last year you and Alison [Kubler] made number 3 on The Art Life’s list of the Hottest Couples, with Carrie Miller naming you “the Australian art scene’s equivalent of Posh and Becks”. Are you aiming for number 1?

MZ. Of course I dare to dream but number three is pretty good for Queenslanders. I would like to say at this point that Carrie Miller is very pretty and very smart.

Michael Zavros
Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane
Until November 23

Sharne Wolff


  1. Tracy C-L

    Great witty interview. Dr Butler’s comments certainly seem to be lefty-field.

  2. Ripley da Pudel

    Beautiful souls produce beautiful art, those haters are just jealous. You rock Mr Greek boy!

  3. Monique

    Fabulous article! What a talent! Love that you care more about the art and less about the critic. That’s what we should all strive to do with our passion.

  4. ryan

    Rex Butler addressed the work, and only the work. Zavros made it personal- maybe any artist would, but how is it correct to suggest Butler stooped to a low? It was a reasoned argument that Butler posited. In the same article he also attributed the status of masterpiece to Zavros’ room at the art gallery- yet a negative critique of his actual painting gave Zavros a complex.

    Also perhaps Butler has a point and Zavros doesnt want to listen. Some issues Butler mentions are systemic problems of the art world generally. Perhaps these problems have always existed- not just in the 20, 21st century.

    Thats the luxury of a vacuum- its not just a santuary away from the world for work to flow, bad work can develop and an artist may not have basic cheques and balances. While the creation of any artwork is a unique practive, surely an engagement with the world has some hard demands that are similar as in any profession?

    As I am a young artist its harder to see the sort of tall poppy syndrome in effect. Often ive heard genuine criticism about artists like Zavros and think it is fair to question the work. Not to stop the work, Zavros can do whatever he likes- but the artwork can be adressed! In my travel, study of art and experience with world artists, Australia is very uncomfortable as a place of criticism, generally. We hate it, its embassessing, it brings bad things up where we would rather ignore them. Regarding art, people can be afraid to criticise, because they appear in our Australian climate as a winger or angry or misguided. World wide a much more aggressive mode of critcism is possible and normalised, there is real debate about ideas and the value of some over others.

    Knowing a little about how some artists develop through the media and gallery, its easy to see how some other older artists can be somewhat disillusioned about the art world. The art world is marketing- it is a buisness at heart and the people that run it use whatever means to get their product to work for them. Artists can fluish in this environment potentially even if they do not have real merit, but are willing to work. Every artist knows great talents who have not come to the surface, who struggle to paint due to their lives- but are still incredible artists. Is it the biggest stretch of the immagination to accept as an observation that some young artists can recieve undue praise?

  5. ryan

    There is nothing wrong with being critical. Zavros was himself. However is Zavros’ case, he made it personal. Constructive criticism is not jealousy.

    The art world doesn’t need more friends congratulating friends. It needs transparency, competition, a battle of ideas, clear speaking and a coherent theoretical basis to be taken seriously- like any field!

    That sort comment above about with a sort of lovely, soft, nice-nice tone does not add any power to a work of art. Nor does the “everybody is a snowflake” attitude add anything. How is someone being a nice person relevant? I’m sure Zavros recycles and is a very conscientious person, but he can still be criticised in the big world about his artwork. And he should be able to take it.

  6. Anonymous

    Great comment!

  7. Rachel

    Awesome interview! Love his work.

  8. CAS

    I would prefer more questions about the actual work and less about hype and perceived conflict. Rigorous critique of work is to be encouraged, but that doesn’t mean only listening to one or two people’s opinions.There are more opinions than that out there. I think it refers to a lack of depth in the critical community more than in this artists practice. In this case I don’t think the interviewer contributed anything new to the discussion, but rather aimed to repeat pre-existing dialogues. That isn’t particularly interesting.

    Sharne Wolff’s interview with Michael Zavros comes in the context of a number of other interviews we have conducted with the artist, as well as reviews and other coverage of his work and career. Not every post we publish is requried to take a critical blowtorch to the subject – Art Life Management

  9. Jasmine

    The most interesting thing about this article were the posts that followed it.

  10. Frank

    Why is The Art Life compelled to take healthy criticism personally? It seems to me that posts critical of the review were simply making points about the brown-nosing that poses for art criticism in OZ, a much needed debate that TAL apparently would prefer to nip in the bud (Rex Butler was at Zavros’s wedding? Was Zavros implying that Butler might have gone a bit easier on him given he was invited to the Zavros wedding? Now that is an incestuous little art world!).

    Surely the purpose of editorial monitoring of posts is about limiting abuse, not defensively responding to ordinary comment in a manner so like oversighting that one hesitates about commenting.

    We let many comments go without am editorial response, but when a comment such as yours makes a category error claiming that our post wasn’t critical enough without actually seeming to understand its context, it’s worth responding to. You again have claimed that the post was a “review” – it wasn’t, it was an interview that put exactly your points to Zavros. If a response from us dissuades your from responding further then it would seem you’re not really ready for that full blooded debate you seem to be demanding – Art Life Management

  11. Ryan

    It seems to me true that The Art Life’s interview with Zavros didn’t try to be hard criticism. TAL came across fairly neutral. This is completely fine. It was a friendly conversation with a young artist. TAL’s response to some of the comments seems fair to me, and proportionate. TAL was criticized for having a superficial approach, but there is nothing wrong with a piece that lets Zavros speak without ‘a blow torch’ strategy.

    It is interesting what Zavros said though, by no fault of TAL.

    His criticism of Butler was unprofessional.

    Another point that strikes me is Zavros’s suggestion that the Qld Art Gallery is somehow going out of their way not to support his work! This seems a little absurd as well as entitled on Zavros’s part. How many excellent artists do not have even one work purchased by the gallery? Many. He has already had great opportunities with them that so many wonderful artists have not. They do not stop his career.

    He is extremely successful commercially and I wonder if he needs their financial support to go on painting. Many artists need financial support and many do not get the opportunities that he has already received.

    Zavros leaves room for speculation “For whatever reason the gallery doesnt recognise my practice” – what does he mean by this?? Why say it?

  12. Ryan

    TAL -can Frank have a full blooded debate with you? Would you let this happen?

    It sounds like an offer- what do you say Frank?

  13. Frank

    To the TAL team and Ryan: substituting ‘review’ for ‘interview’ was a sloppy error which I concede doesn’t add to my cred as a contributor to what I suggested was a “much needed debate” (discussion at least!) about Oz art world ethics. I was actually querying why TAL deemed it necessary to respond to CAS’s comment, is all. I wasn’t referring to the interview per se, apart from noting Zavros’s wry aside to SW about Rex Butler (coming to the party but not coming to the party, so to speak!), also noted by Ryan among his many other interesting points.

    So here’s a contribution from someone else: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115823/record-auction-prices-show-moneys-victory-over-art

  14. Ryan

    Frank: The New Republic’s article describes some pretty serious nepotism.
    In the earlier response to your message, I genuinely thought it would have been great to have an article, debate on the topic of media and the arts. It was more a hopeful plea to TAL to get that to happen.
    Endorsements/ info-tainment can awkwardly be disguised as real appraisal. Artists themselves dont have a healthy critical climate to engage with. They just use the media as another marketing tool as they have to survive. Real conversation becomes pacified by so much cotton wool. For me the answer is more robust criticism and a higher standard of conversation by critics themselves.

    Here is an interesting case which shows some problems with critics themselves. This is a link to a response by Robert Nelson where he addresses other art critics, and their critique of him! The original crime was that Nelson dared to be critical of the Australian Art Darling: Fred WIlliams. Here Nelson takes these critics to task for 1: personal attack of him, 2: their vague platitudes of art, and 3. that his act of being critical even of someone like Williams is more than acceptable.


    Nelson himself is a brilliant art critic and thinker, whose insight and clarity are truly amazing. As a painter myself, his work “The Visual Language of representational painting” has become important to my practice because it helps me start a personal and public conversation with what painting is and could be. It is such a unique attempt at describing and conceptualizing the experience of painting. The book saturates the reader in the living world of visual stimuli and method. It makes this strange world of the artist accessible and offers how these could be understood as language. The book also transcends the art jargon of artists themselves and the high art world, simply by trying to make a cogent argument. His rigor during this thesis, is grounded totally in a love of paint and the experience of painting. He is a painter also. I think he is a hero for the kind of conversation that could be possible.

  15. Frank

    Ryan: Thank you for your thoughts and interesting link…as someone once said (probably one of my alters), sometimes it’s just good to have a chat about art (or the art world) without feeling like a bull in a china shop – or a shag on a rock.

  16. No disrespect to Sharne but can we please get Scott Redford to do a couple of these interviews this year!

  17. C m

    How about some gritty reviews and interviews from No 7 and his boy wonder Robin from Tasmania.

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