Art | Zavros sets the stage | Jill Stowell

The Sunbather: Michael Zavros in front of one of his acclaimed works on show at Newcastle Art Gallery.
The Sunbather: Michael Zavros in front of one of his acclaimed works on show at Newcastle Art Gallery.

WITH its latest exhibition, Magic Mike, until May 28, Newcastle Art Gallery must be hoping to repeat the popular success of its recent John Olsen tribute.

The 1999-2017 survey of work by painter Michael Zavros is also based on personality and lifestyle. But while Olsen’s long career has been inspired by shared convivial experiences in the kitchen or on the shores of Sydney harbour, Michael Zavros, in a much acclaimed body of work, deliberately chooses to identify with the artist as introspective persona, the guru of lifestyle.

The stage is set, with the Newcastle Art Gallery invoking the gym with intimidating apparatus in use at designated times by intent gymnasts, surprising in the context of the gallery, but perfectly illustrating a solitary quest for perfection.

The principal painting is a life-sized self-portrait as an updated Narcissus, lying perfectly proportioned in the sun, languidly contemplating his reflection in an azure swimming pool. Another self-portrait utilises a richly decorated Versace plate as a halo, another is reflected in the panels of a luxury car. Designer props are as carefully chosen and deployed as the power-demonstrating luxury of Versailles, itself the subject of an elaborate painting in the exhibition.

Even flower pieces are presented as power trips, infinitely controlled arrangements in which the painted surface is as immaculate as the featured blooms, not so much vanitas as vanity. It’s hard to tell which works are edited photographs and which oil paintings.

Control: Michael Zavros's The Phoenix 2015. Picture: Art Gallery of South Australia.

Control: Michael Zavros's The Phoenix 2015. Picture: Art Gallery of South Australia.

Immaculately painted fashion items as subjects are in danger of taking the survey into bathos territory. Designer neckties rearing up like cobras come perilously close to the high camp of advertising gimmicks.

It is a pity perhaps that this survey exhibition of a successful mid-career painter did not include the studies of horses for which Michael Zavros is also known. They too embody shiny-skinned perfection and athletic elegance without any self-conscious narcissism or the slightly uncomfortable use of the artist’s daughter as surrogate. Several works feature nymphette Phoebe, aping the adult world playing dress-ups in luxury logo products.

Why not use an independent curator for a major survey on this scale? Artists, with their preoccupations, do not necessarily do themselves justice. More major paintings would have been welcome.

STREET LIFE

BOTH Susan and Peter Doherty have substantial careers in the arts. 

In their joint exhibition at Maitland Regional Art Gallery until April 2, they pay a sort of backhand homage to the suburban spread of the 1950s when it was suddenly possible all over Australia for families to own their own homes. Today these small mass-produced villas with gabled front, tiny porch and single garage seem quaint, but for a generation they were the Australian dream.

Peter O’Doherty’s paintings show the streetscape bleak and introverted, seen through the mists of time. Susan O’Doherty’s assemblages of found objects venture inside. Taps, wallpapers, drawn blinds, eggcups, egg beaters and shaving brushes invoke a past existence constrained by many clocks. There is nothing cosy here; even the armchairs look rigid, and no overt human presence. It’s a past life as inert as Pompeii.

WILD SUBURBIA 

IF the O’Doherty suburbs are devoid of inhabitants, the present riotous life of similar areas, imagined by an artist trio at ASW, makes a wild contrast.

Until March 19 familiar subjects from many exhibitions by Peter Lankas and Ellie Kaufmann are joined by the more dramatic visions of Christopher Zanko. No doubt the collaboration required compromise, but the resulting 28 small paintings seem an ideal solution, with Kaufmann’s improbably naked ladies lewdly disporting themselves in the backyards, and even the front drives, of the 1950s houses so treasured by Lankas.

This overheated version of the Australian Dream is rendered more abstract by the moody skies and textured details of Zanko.

It’s hard to know whose work came first, though separate paintings by the individual artists in the entrance foyer demystify the process. One can’t help comparing these jolly, vulgar paintings with the cool, vogue-infused lifestyle of Michael Zavros. Yet the same sensual blur is the underlying impetus for both exhibitions.

And the winner is ...

GEOFF Harvey, best known for his composite junk dogs, has won the 2017 Muswellbrook Art Prize.