Michael Zavros

Michael Zavros is well-known for his supreme fluency with paint. His visual vernacular of brushless trompe l’oeil rendering fetishised objects is unmistakable. Using his paintbrush like a wand, Zavros constructs contemporary mythologies surrounding materialism, consumerism and narcissism. Yet while his hyperreal paintings bask in the glow of public acclaim, Zavros’ printmaking practice lingers in the shadows – despite being a formative spark in the artist’s output.

It may be surprising to some that you majored in printmaking at the Queensland College of Art (QCA) and didn’t paint at all during your studies. Why did you decide to study printmaking?
I so loved the little taster we had in first year but I also wanted to learn a specific process, to come away from my undergraduate degree with new skills. The lecturers were all master printers and the facilities at QCA are impressive. The printmaking department seemed so rigid and structured, which was good for me at that point. Printmaking observes a certain fastidious approach. It requires clean edges, clean hands, meticulous attention to detail and, above all else, it takes a significant amount of time. Making an edition with an overarching similitude between prints requires a rigorous approach and patience. At college, the painting students were so subversive they weren’t largely painting; painting was considered dead, so there was no interest in teaching specific skills. This didn’t appeal to me. Everything I know about painting I’ve taught myself.

After graduating, what influenced your migration from printmaking to painting?
I knew I’d paint again after graduating and, unlike printmaking, it doesn’t take much to set up a painting studio. I began painting more for work. I started a tromp l’oeil mural painting business, which kept me busy for a few years and paid some bills.

Your work is hyperreal, possessing the hyperbolic clarity of a high-resolution photo. In Greenbergian terms, it ‘uses art to conceal art’. The glossy precision of oil paint, however, is very different from the scratchy, linear surface of an etching. Is printmaking a more challenging medium with which to create your extreme trompe l’oeil?
Printmaking just offers such different and rich surface qualities, from gorgeous velvety blacks in an aquatint, to delicate fine etched lines. And lithography can be almost like a charcoal drawing with a full tonal spectrum. I find printmaking more challenging – so much goes wrong and there are so many variables. But this adds to the seduction for me. A good print coming off the press is incredibly rewarding. I enjoy the process; it’s problem solving, a million tiny surface decisions. Similarly for me painting is a process. All of the concept and consideration and ideas happen before I begin to paint; the painting becomes pure process; technique.

Hyperrealism is typically associated with Freud’s uncanny or unheimlich, but I’m fascinated by how your works have the opposite effect; they’re ultra-appealing. Why do you think people are drawn to your mimetic exactitude?
The desire to suspend disbelief is inherently human. I love Westworld (a TV drama series) precisely for its exploration of the uncanny. The opening sequences are incredibly beautiful and so real. The entire show requires the viewer to believe the characters to be real, to not be able to discern between the real and the copy. It’s so meta. A recent essay on my work by New Zealand academic Laurence Simmons talks about my work not being literal (hyperrealism) but that I deal in what is taken to be the real, even if the real is in fact a fake, a copy, an impersonation, what might be called the really unreal real.

This idea of the ‘really unreal real’ echoes Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about how postmodern society pivots on a virtual image regime of simulated reality, and indeed many of your etchings simulate existing paintings. In fact, your Prince/Zavros etchings copy your paintings, which reproduce Prince’s photographs, which copy Marlboro cigarette ads. Are you aligning with this idea that today authenticity doesn’t truly exist?
Sometimes I’ll make a drawing version of a painting or an etching based on a painting. It’s always to extend a work I really liked, a different treatment of the subject/image but also to edition it – multiply it. But I think less about a commercial opportunity than I do about extending the work in some way.

The Prince etchings are photographic prints of the original works (my paintings) which were about an emptying of the source image, but then in etching them and investing so much time in the image, they are reinvested with a value, which is perhaps literally time spent. And then of course they become a further copy of a copy of a copy, and so on. They both describe and subvert that postmodern condition of reproduction, in an analogue way; etchings are the original copies. In all my work I enjoy the paradox of exploring contemporary ideas via anachronistic methods – painting, drawing, printmaking.

In the etching Disappear Here, your initials are spelt in cocaine atop a mirrorless antique hand mirror. This is one of the few prints that doesn’t appropriate your paintings. Can you explain the significance of this work?
Originally it was a series of five images, my initials being chopped into lines and disappearing but I preferred the single image of the ‘halfway point’ in the process. The powder is a reference of course to the decadent material world of conspicuous consumption. But effectively the work is about a self-consumption. The title comes from a Brett Easton Ellis novel.

Looking at your oeuvre, painting has certainly eclipsed your printmaking practice. Do you prefer painting to printing?
I seldom have the opportunity to make prints but I’d like to make more. Painting allows me to make more elaborate, ambitious works and the glossy perfected veneer of precision oil painting better mirrors what I want to paint. Painting suits my broader project. There’s also an immediacy to painting that I like. My painting is a slow process but I like the total control. You’re always somewhat in the hands of the gods when you embark on a print, and it is time-dependent. It evolves in stages.

Are you planning to make more prints?
Yes, I’m very keen to make prints at the moment. I want to learn engraving, which is something I’ve never tried. I’m currently on a one-month residency with Shanghai University and am embarking on some prints right now. I’ve spent the day carving marks into balsa wood in the woodcut department. Stay tuned!

Michael Zavros is represented by Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane and Starkwhite Gallery, Auckland, NZ

This interview was first published in Artist Profile, Issue 39, 2017

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