michael zavros


The night of Michael Zavros's exhibition opening at Mori Gallery, the gallery walls reeked of fresh paint. Far from being off-putting, this olfactory prompt was highly appropriate for Zavros's Spring/Summer 'collection ', which is preoccupied with the compelling opacity of the surface. Spring/Summer was hung in the gallery's capacious main room and comprised thirty-one works, all oils on board which, with one exception, were miniatures depicting fragments of figures and interiors. The long walls appeared adorned with small icons, pointing to the wit of Zavros's play on the dynamics of desire and devotion, and to complex relationships of scale and the conventions of two dimensional representation that secure Orthodox icons from the idolatry of naturalism.

The subject of most of the paintings in Spring/Summer is the besuited male as he is represented in advertising. Particular markers of style locate Zavros's urban professional within an aesthetics and politics of the 1990s. This was the time when the term 'suit' entered popular parlance to denote the faceless professional worker; when male fashion championed the understated punctilio of European tailoring, as in the Armani suits worn by Prime Minister Paul Keating. lt was at this time, too, that the male body was reappraised as an object of advertising attention, in a move that recognised its market potential, to the urban gay consumer in particular.

In this connection, which is immediately, even emphatically apparent, Zavros's miniatures announce a position within painting's critique of the relation between photographic imagery and commodity fetishism, a focus which courts rather than denies the implications of its own practice in this economy. As stressed by the size of the paintings, which conform to that of the advertisements they 'copy', Zavros's paintings undermine traditional understandings of representation predicated on the sequence or progression from a putative originality to a replication.

The sense of the belatedness of Zavros's images of male fashion, of their being proper to the previous decade, also identifies a key contradiction of spectatorial desire. For situated in the very newness of style is the immediate transition to the out-of date, betrayed by the length of a cuff or the width of a tie. This belatedness points to the nostalgic desire of commodity culture which includes the desire to command and control style. For when viewed from the fluidity of the present, images of the past, or images cast as belonging to the past, render 'style' static and precisely defined, and hence attainable.

If the temporality of the miniature is nostalgia, its location is always proximity. Here, too, Zavros's images present a rhetorical intensity upon ideas of form, media and praxis. First in this regard, is the derivation from and pleasure in commercial photography. In this way Zavros's miniature 'suits' invoke Benjamin's observations on photography and the capacity of this (then) new technology to deny distance and make distant objects and scenes close to us, miniaturising them and thereby creating a sense of their possession. Another convention of miniature proximity operating in Zavros's work is made clear when we think of those other miniature exhibits, such as miniature villages, which habitually command the viewer to lose herself in the detail of the scene: 'Look through the tiny win dow to see the blacksmith at work!' Miniatures require, in Bachelard's terms, 'the enlarging gaze of a child '. Even though the viewer of miniatures can assume a superior gaze over the small world represented, this sense of comprehension and ownership is undermined in the captivation of a miniature's detail. Zavros's miniatures expostulate this practice of seeing, in that each image presents us with a fragment, one aspect of a scene, brought into relief and focus.

Each presents the viewer with the contradiction of an ostensibly knowable object, but then exposes the viewer's pretence of possession. Theorists of the miniature, such as Bachelard and Susan Stewart, have also reminded us that the miniature pertains to interiority; it presents itself as an object of contemplation like an icon of devotion. Whereas the gigantic worlds of monuments and of epic belong to the public sphere, to the agon, miniatures invite intimate banter and affection. Yet Zavros's miniatures of 'suits' deny this intimacy in a literal effacement, for we are not shown the subjects' faces. lt is this juncture of intimacy and estrangement that identifies the complexity of these paintings of fashion . For we are drawn in by the rhetorical play of the miniature fragments only to encounter the opacity of the surface.

The relationship between the miniature and interiority also finds a literal exposition in the most recent of Zavros's works included in this exhibition, which depict interiors of Italian baroque and rococo palazzi. Viewing these interiors in the context of the whole of Zavros's Spring/Summer collection, one is initially confounded by the difference between the modern photographic subjects of the urban male, which make up the bulk of the exhibition, and these scenes from a distant painterly past. Yet, here too, we are drawn in to a world of intricate detail, only to have the intimacy of this gaze denied attachment by the surface of trompe-l'oeil. Here, too, Zavros's transposition across the practices of visual art makes connections across time and convention while the insistent stasis of the captivated scene ultimately refuses habitual exegeses of meaning predicated on depth and narrative.