Michael Zavros is reflecting on three decades of work

“Jeff Koons says ‘embrace your past’,” cites Michael Zavros. “I think I’m good at that.”

Brisbane-based Zavros, arguably one of Australia’s most celebrated artists of the last decade, has been dissecting his personal and artistic history for the most significant exhibition of his career: The Favourite. The survey show features works dating back to 1999, and naturally includes many of his signature photorealist paintings with their startlingly resonant detail, as well as sculptures, video works, photography and hybrid pieces.

For Zavros, a central work in the exhibition is his provocative painting Phoebe Is Dead/McQueen, 2010, which shows his five-year old daughter ‘playing dead’, covered with an Alexander McQueen scarf. It won the Doug Moran Portrait Prize that year. This piece is not necessarily, though, Zavros’s “favourite”. Rather, the exhibition’s title was chosen for its ambiguity, revealing a playfulness that runs throughout. “The Favourite could refer to a favourite child, the horse most likely to win, a favourite group of artworks all compiled in a show, or a chocolate box with a cheesy realist painting on its lid,” says Zavros.

The process of reflecting on three decades of work has been illuminating for Zavros. In particular, it has revealed how changing cultural context can affect and transform the interpretation of an artwork over time. He cites as an example his early-career miniature paintings, included in The Favourite, of men in smart suits, which he says were originally intended to explore aesthetics and fashion imagery.

“Through a 2023 lens it’s almost impossible to look at them without observing debates around white male privilege or toxic masculinity,” he explains, “although their origins were more autobiographical, and located in an aesthetic appreciation. Ironically, they were also aspirational works. I had nothing, but I wanted a nice suit then. Selling lots of those paintings of the suits got me a nice suit.”

The Favourite
Michael Zavros
Queensland Art Gallery
24 June—2 October

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Barnaby Smith