In the second feature from our series which pairs writers and artists that share a passion, Art Guide’s Louise Martin-Chew and Queensland artist Michael Zavros discuss their mutual obsession with exercise, as well as gym culture and the age-old allure of the body beautiful.
As writers, we make assumptions about connections between the art and the artist’s life. However, with Michael Zavros we don’t have to assume. The realist painter has made a career out of giving us finely detailed vignettes of his life within his art practice. His work has an increasingly personal focus, seen clearly in his latest exhibition, Magic Mike, at Newcastle Art Gallery. His daily training regimen and his own physicality are captured in the paintings. And, in an exhibition that engages with gym culture and the pursuit of the body beautiful, choreographed weightlifting performances will also take place within the gallery. Does Magic Mike (titled after the 2012 movie about male strippers) represent vanity gone mad, or a complete fusion of art and the artist’s physical life?
I have known Michael for some years, and I recall a hilarious incident when he tried (and failed) to master my Pilates Wunda Chair, despite his obvious strength. I’ve watched the evolution of his painting and its increasing focus on his person (and that of his daughter Phoebe) and have admired his muscular strength. I know how hard won physical change can be.
I’m no body builder, but I come from a long line of exercise obsessives. My family tree is littered with tales of a great-great aunt who was known to lie down in her bedroom and do exercises with her legs in the air at a time when such things were judged (kindly) as eccentric or (harshly) as unseemly. My grandfather jogged for 30 minutes every day (on a level surface) into his 90s, and I often discuss the difficulty of building muscle in later life with my 87 year old aunt (who still goes to the gym). It is lucky for me that I have always needed a physical outlet, and I remain addicted to the daily training regimen.
Decades ago I trained in dressage riding, and I first noticed Zavros’s paintings of horses, particularly those in which man and animal merge. These paintings are a visual expression of the ambition of dressage and they evoke the artist’s boyhood experience as a dressage rider, a sport in which grooming of both rider and horse must be at the highest level. This has been absorbed into his practice as a man and as an artist.
We met (after our daily exercise) to discuss our various regimens. It was during the recent Queensland heat-wave, and outside Zavros’s air conditioned studio, I could see his 54 hens attacking the garden while the rooster crowed repeatedly. His home is a semi-rural idyll on the outskirts of Brisbane, an acreage haven where he can accommodate his chickens, have horses nearby, plenty of room for his three children, yet be in the city or at the airport in twenty minutes.
Mike’s studio ‘uniform’ is crocs and rugby shorts, with his olive-skinned upper body bare. As a result, I can report that depictions of significant muscular development on his biceps on display in Magic Mike, in a painting called The Artist Flexes His Muscle, 2015, are, um… accurate.
Fitness has always been an absolute necessity for Michael. “I started working out when I was 15, as rehabilitation from a car accident, and never really stopped. As my life and career have become increasingly busy I’ve formalised physical exercise, given it greater importance in my day rather than relegating it to a task I no longer have time for,” he says. “It is less about the luxury or flexibility of time than it is a conscious decision to stay healthy. In my work I aspire to longevity and so too in my body. I’m here for the long haul.”
This focus and attention to detail is clearly aligned with the physical demands of his painting practice. “Fitness is about repeated gestures in defined sets: intensity with waiting or recovery, applied layers. Working out has a logic and a rhythm, as does painting,” he explains.
Zavros’s Greek good looks are complemented by his commanding presence; both were exposed in The Sunbather, 2015, which depicts Michael lying face down and naked by the swimming pool, transfixed by the reflected image. Narcissism is a consistent thread in Zavros’s work, and his exploration of gym culture takes that theme to another level. Visitors to Magic Mike may be surprised when they visit an exhibition of paintings to discover a team of body builders performing routines in front of the work, and I am not aware of any precedent for such activities.
But Zavros also argues that the assumed narcissism in gym culture may be unfair, as is the association with a lack of cerebral engagement. He notes that while sport is an accepted cultural element within Australian art, “The gym is associated with individualism and narcissism. And I am definitely a solo performer,” he says. “But staying fit doesn’t preclude intellect; it’s just that most intellectuals don’t stay fit.”
Now in his forties, the physical assets that Michael may have taken for granted in the past require increasing maintenance, and he acknowledges the challenges of ageing. “I don’t want to get old, but more than that I don’t want to be unwell and old,” he says. As a man, Zavros is increasingly comfortable with the skin that he is in. “I am so much more at one with my body and my mind in my forties. I respect my body and what it has given me. It’s an old adage but true; if you haven’t got good health you haven’t got anything.” And I must agree, my body, too, has served me well. It seems only fair to return the favour.
And Zavros points out that a fixation with physical perfection has an impressive history. “Instagram is filled with images of the body beautiful, both male and female. None of this obsession with youth and beauty is new. It’s centuries old,” he says. “When I look at the work in Magic Mike I think of the lineage to rigid gym culture in Ancient Greece; to a young woman so beautiful that her face could launch a thousand ships; and to the tradition of still life, freezing youth and beauty in time, in oil paint.”