Unpublished. Originally written as a catalogue essay for Scott Redford vs. Michael Zavros, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2010.
From modernism, we have inherited the idea that artists should be ‘critical’. We believe that they should create something new, that they should be experimental and progressive, that they should reject received ideas and buck the system. Great artists, we assume, produce their work out of inner compulsion, disregarding public taste. Indeed, their work should be addressed to the future, to an audience that has yet to exist. This avantgarde ideal continues to inform the way we talk about art—every art-school student learns to cast their work as a critique of this or that—and yet some recent art seems to steer away from this notion. It tends to be deliberately likable, appealing, entertaining. When Rex Butler describes today’s art as ‘post-critical’, he points to a new regime of art production, distribution, and reception.1
Artists Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami exemplify the post-critical moment.2 They are affirmative; they want to wow and entertain the public. They produce spectacular, crowd-pleasing, high-concept works: a giant floral puppy, a diamond-studded skull, a cowboy twirling a lasso of his jism. Their works, which involve high production values and require teams of fabricators, are only possible because they have access to budgets, methods, and platforms typically associated with the entertainment industry rather than the art world. But they don’t just produce expensive art, they also create cheaper, supplementary ‘product lines’—multiples and merchandise. Indeed, Murakami is better known for his collaborations with Louis Vuitton than for his gallery work.
Koons, Hirst, and Murakami operate out of the legacy of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol (who both transformed the model of the abrasive avantgarde artist into the complicit tabloid showman). All three are, in various ways, pop artists. Immersed in the business of art, they court the press and embrace the idea of the artist as brand. They are helping to erode the once-presumed divide between high-minded art and entertainment, as art is sucked into what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer dismissed as ‘the culture industry’.3 Their works address an immediate audience, rather than one in the future.
Post-critical art has been enabled by major changes in the art world’s infrastructure. On the one hand, art audiences have increased due to the popularising of contemporary art (through tourist-attraction art museums such as London’s Tate Modern) and its global expansion (with biennales appearing in every backwater imaginable). On the other hand, the overinflated contemporary-art market, also newly global, has brought supportive collectors and huge prices, making Koons and Hirst, in particular, fabulously wealthy. One of the unexpected consequences of contemporary art’s popularity is that the nature of art has changed. The rise of post-critical art—and the perception of Koons, Hirst, and Murakami as models of art-world success—informs the general conditions under which artists now make art, setting new terms of reference, new expectations. This context frames the following discussion of two local artists—Michael Zavros and Scott Redford—who hail from the Gold Coast and whose works are aligned to this post-critical moment.
In 1993, at the height of America’s ‘culture wars’, critic Dave Hickey predicted that ‘beauty’ would be contemporary art’s ‘issue of the nineties’.4 Three years later, Michael Zavros graduated from the Queensland College of Art. Zavros is an aesthete: he paints beautiful things beautifully. The value of his subjects is mirrored in his impeccable photorealistic rendering of them. Zavros’s oeuvre describes a personal canon of elegance that includes baroque interiors, fairytale palaces and follies, upmarket men’s fashions and grooming products, Lipizzaner horses (from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna), Japanese pedigree onagadori chicken, luxury cars, pretty young boys, and, of course, himself. These subjects operate interchangeably, being analogous to one another: men in bespoke pinstriped suits echo onagadori chicken (with their extravagant, impractical tails), while a scenic-postcard view of the Palace of Versailles becomes, in a sense, a self portrait.
Zavros’s particular idea of beauty is keyed to high style: privilege, class, aristocracy, and luxury brands. He embraces vanity, dandyism, peacockery, and metrosexuality.5 By picking classy subjects that are susceptible to deconstruction and critique, Zavros foregrounds and flaunts his lack of criticality. Consequently, his audience is divided—his work is a shibboleth. Zavros’s detractors question his lack of critical or ironic distance, saying this is not what art should be about, while his fans identify with his work, saying this is exactly what art should be about. Anxiety over Zavros’s lack of criticality has led some writers to frame his work as critical. For instance, in his catalogue essay for Zavros’s show Calling in the Fox, Jason Smith argued: ‘Over the past decade Michael Zavros has produced super-real, highly seductive images that have elaborated a contemporary culture of narcissism, and that have scrutinised and deconstructed popular concepts of beauty and physical perfection … Another political strain and a predominating theme in Zavros’s work is the interrogation of ideals of male beauty and physical flawlessness.’6
For me, however, Zavros’s work calls for a different reading; one that understands its virtues without having to twist them to serve a critical framework. What is remarkable about his work is precisely how rigorously uncritical it is, while being completely knowing. Zavros does not criticise or apologise for his subjects (or those who identify with them). He’s utterly sincere—there’s no bad faith, no conflict.
While Zavros’s works deny criticality, they are deeply self-reflexive. Three examples are immediately apparent. First, playing on the way that his paintings have themselves become trophies for collectors, Zavros has painted hunting trophies. He exhibited them in a show called Trophy Hunter, which demanded collectors embrace this idea explicitly.7 Second, he has painted beautifully styled ‘interiors’ based on images from glossy lifestyle magazines, where artworks are presented alongside furniture and objets d’art as indicators of status. These interiors-paintings can then be purchased and hung in collectors’ homes. Surrounded by the collectors’ own things, they may themselves then be photographed for glossy magazines. Third, to celebrate the Australian launch of the Spanish fashion brand Balenciaga, Zavros staged an exhibition of paintings of Balenciaga handbags in a Jean Brown shoes-and-handbags shop. His paintings of bags sat alongside real bags as equally desirable commodities.8
The term ‘mise en abyme’ describes the uncanny effect of such nested representations—pictures within pictures. It encapsulates Zavros’s project, where a painting exists within a painting, an interior within an interior; where a picture of a trophy is a trophy, and an expensive painting of a handbag takes the place of an expensive handbag in a handbag shop. While the mise en abyme is routinely assumed to render meaning ambiguous and unstable, in Zavros’s work it has precisely the opposite effect. It reinforces associations, as if there is no outside from which to view the work critically. Given the way Zavros’s subjects also reflect one another, we are left in one great hall of mirrors.
Zavros invites his discerning audience into this hall with him. In the small painting V12 Narcissus (2009), he depicts himself admiring his reflection in the bonnet of his Mercedes Benz SL600 sports car. The title alludes to the Greek myth of a beautiful boy who, spurning the affections of others, prefers his own reflection. But Zavros’s painting does not spurn the affections of others. Rather, it invites them to join in on the narcissism. If the painting makes an analogy between the artist and his possession, it also prompts us to extend that analogy to the relation between the owner-viewer and the painting. While the painting shows Zavros enjoying his good person reflected in the bonnet of his car, it invites self-satisfied owner-viewers to similarly admire themselves in its surfaces.
Zavros makes the hall-of-mirrors metaphor explicit in Echo (2009), a large painting that finds shiny chrome gym equipment stationed, only somewhat incongruously, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Back in the seventeenth century, mirrors were prohibitively expensive, and the Hall was the Sun King’s monument to his own magnificence—its mirrors reflected paintings that celebrated his life. Zavros’s painting suggests that the gym gear is the contemporary echo (or reflection) of the Hall—democratising what was once aristocratic vanity. It’s also a nod to Koons, who, in 2008, exhibited works, including his stainless-steel Rabbit (1986), in Versailles.
Occasionally, Zavros seems to inject problematic elements—a taint of negativity—into his paintings. In Man (2009), a skull is suggested through the arrangement of luxury products that Zavros owns—Carrera sunglasses for the eye holes, Prada shoes for the nose holes, and, for the grinning teeth, a line of fragrance bottles (including Calvin Klein’s ‘Man’ cologne). The work could be seen as a moralistic vanitas or memento mori, but it’s a stretch to imagine it as a genuine warning against the trappings of worldly possessions. The commodities remain attractive despite the warning. Thus, even when Zavros cites the tragic Narcissus myth or the vanitas tradition, he overrides any negative associations. Such references inoculate his work against critique.9
Zavros’s project encompasses more than his paintings; it incorporates his own life and emerging celebrity status. Beloved by glossy magazines, the lean, handsome, well groomed, and increasingly well-heeled artist has become a staple of personality profiles, society pages, and best-dressed lists. His audience’s readings of his works are grounded in the knowledge of his beauty and his increasing ability to enjoy the lifestyle he depicts. If the works were produced by some troll in a fetid garret, they really wouldn’t mean the same thing. For all its appeal to the traditional virtues of fine draftsmanship and painting, Zavros’s work belongs to a line of conceptual-art projects that explore the collapse of art into life. It’s a performance.10
More than ten years older than Michael Zavros, Scott Redford is from a different generation. He made his name in the 1990s as a gay artist whose works tut-tutted art history for excluding or suppressing gay perspectives and histories. As a countermeasure, his works fantasised gay subtexts throughout the modern-and-contemporary-art canon, as if he were rewriting art history from a queer perspective. It was classically critical art.11 However, around 2000, Redford had a change of heart. Although he had enjoyed critical success, he was tired of being an artist with ‘issues’. He wanted to be more in play in the market. He decided to go commercial, creating appealing, upbeat, unabashedly populist works that celebrated the vulgar aesthetic of his hometown, the Gold Coast.
With its population of surfers and cashed-up bogans, the Gold Coast is an odd place. Australia’s sixth-most-populous city borrows its architectural style from Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Miami—it even has its own Miami Beach. With unrestrained property development, an iconic line of pastel skyscrapers has sprouted on the beachfront. The Coast is usually seen as a vulgar high-culture-free zone: lots of cash, but no cultural topsoil. However, Redford—having learnt from Las Vegas12—sees it as a parallel world that fulfils and scrambles our notions of modernity and postmodernity. Of the Coast, he says: ‘What attracts me is that, no matter what is said about it, it will always exceed and disappoint our expectations. It is a sort of rebus or mirror. It can be projected onto and reviled. It is both beautiful and a whore. Utopia and dystopia. You get the picture? I think it is ART.’13
Redford has created all manner of works that riff off the Coast and its surf culture. Using the materials and methods of surfboard manufacture, his ‘surf paintings’ feature fluorescent colours, glossy surfaces, and decals, and interweave references to abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, finish fetish, conceptual art, and Asian brush-and-ink landscape painting. He has created architectural models, including a proposal for a new Gold Coast Art Gallery (2003–5), upon which a giant surfboard will lean, and proposals for monuments based on the Coast’s existing Las Vegas-derived motel signage. He has also made a video of bikini-clad babes sawing up ‘dead boards’ (water-logged surfboards) in a room at the glitzy Versace Hotel and proposed to turn Australia’s Venice Biennale pavilion into a surf shop.
Redford has created a mythology of the Gold Coast as the promised land and Surfers Paradise as paradise on earth. In his work, the Gold Coast becomes a land of ‘perpetual Christmas’ and ‘motorcycle emptiness’. Redford plays on the similarity between non-art and art—say, between a surfboard and a shaped canvas, or the Gold Coast development Paradise Waters and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. For him, the Coast doesn’t need art because it already is art; it already embodies the logic of contemporary art. His work suggests that its inhabitants may live in an (art) paradise without being aware of it or even caring. Perhaps their oblivion is part of why the place is paradise—and only he can see it.
It’s hard to ascertain how far these works deviate from Redford’s previous ‘critical’ queer project, and to what extent they continue it through other means. One could characterise the Gold Coast as mainstream (pop culture par excellence), but one could also see it as derided and marginal within Australia, thus akin to homosexuality. Redford does not seek to resolve this ambiguity, but rather to sustain and exploit it. If his queer works willfully represented the mainstream as gay, these later works understand the Coast as indistinguishably straight and gay. Redford casts the Coast as a potential utopia in which all conflicts and oppositions might be simultaneously active, suspended, or magically resolved.
A few years ago, Redford had a crisis over his relation to the art world. Deciding he didn’t want to produce his own work anymore, he came up with the idea of producing work by someone else, an imaginary artist, Reinhardt Dammn. Dammn has his own issues with the art world. He is ‘a 22-year-old who surfs, makes art, and sings in a band. Reinhardt is cocky and always the showman, but his bravado masks vulnerability. Spurned by the official art world because of his youth, Reinhardt is also rejected because he refuses to ignore the obvious: a canvas painted one colour is not a “monochrome signaling art’s autonomy”, it is a one-colour canvas; a soup tin is a soup tin; an installation is just objects placed in a room. Daring to speak with the innocence of a wild child, Reinhardt challenges the complacency of art’s powers-that-be.’14
While Dammn is a critical artist, he is critical of precisely those established art forms that have become synonymous with the critical (such as the monochrome). His story sounds familiar. As much as he is a wild child and a critic of the establishment, Dammn already has the aura of an art star in waiting, being groomed for his post-critical glossy-magazine personality profile, his fifteen minutes of fame. His very name suggests a Faustian pact with the devil.
Redford reports that he is writing a film script around Dammn’s story, and that the works he has produced in Dammn’s name are ‘props’ for the film.15 The Dammn project allows Redford to treat the art world as a fiction within the context of the real art world, through a fictional artist whose strings are pulled by a real one (that mise en abyme again). This conceit allows Redford to play out his conflicted love/hate relationship with the art world, while putting the art world in inverted commas. It’s hard to know whether to see Dammn as Redford’s alter-ego or simply as a character. Some of the Dammn works appear to be Dammn’s own, others—such as Redford’s Warholesque wallpaper of found images of a ‘Reinhardt-like boy’ and screen tests of boys who might potentially play Dammn—suggest they are works about Dammn rather than by him. Combine this with the fact that some of Dammn’s art is already (imagined) crossover merchandising relating to his parallel career in a punk band (notably those perennial ceramic polar bears) and it all gets rather confusing.
The Dammn works are diverse, ranging from the dashed-off Instant Paintings (2008), which are lurid abstract-expressionist canvases with skater decals, to the sleek Reinhardt Dammn: Power Mirror (2010), a giant stainless-steel paper dart. But one senses that their manifest qualities are not the ultimate basis of their significance. Rather, that significance is somehow tied up in the story—the film in which they will ultimately appear. Until the film is written and made, the work is without context, and thus sidesteps any external critical assessment.16 Redford’s apparent positivity has always been underpinned by his anxieties over his place in the art world. The Dammn project allows him to play out his complex relationship with the fickle art world whose machinations he wants to identify with (and speak on behalf of) but which also marginalises him (and which he, therefore, would want to attack).
While Zavros and Redford may share a taste for the glitzy and affirmative, huge differences lie between them. The obvious one is the gulf between the class values that they affirm: Zavros spruiks the faux-aristocratic taste of luxury brands, and Redford, principally, the subcultural taste of surfers and skaters. But there is a more fundamental difference. Zavros has utterly transcended the critical, whereas criticality nags Redford’s project, complicating and potentially corroding its positivity. Zavros makes affirmative art because he is affirmative, while Redford makes affirmative art because he is critical of criticality, negative about negativity. Zavros is truly positive, Redford a double negative. This explains why Redford needs a Reinhardt Dammn, while Zavros can be himself. Zavros is his own Reinhardt Dammn.
- Rex Butler, ‘GOMA, the APT and the Contemporary’, Eyeline, no. 63, Winter 2007: 32–4; and ‘Candide in Brisvegas’, Broadsheet 38, no. 1, 2009: 31–3. See also Pop Life: Art in a Material World, ed. Jack Bankowsky, Alison M. Gingeras, and Catherine Wood (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), and Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture (New York: Sternberg Press, 2009).
- Other artists—including AES+F, Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, Anish Kapoor, and Yayoi Kusama—play key roles in the post-critical moment.
- In his 1939 essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Clement Greenberg famously opposed good avantgarde art to the schmaltzy pseudo-culture of the masses. In 1947, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Frankfurt School Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer reiterated the value of difficult art, arguing that ‘the culture industry’ (Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, etc.) produced standardised cultural goods to lull the masses into passivity and compliance.
- Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (LA: Art Issues Press, 1993), 11.
- To date, women are largely absent from Zavros’s canon of beauty, except for his daughter Phoebe, who appears in the painting Phoebe Is Dead/McQueen and Zavros’s first video-work We Dance in the Studio (To that Shit on the Radio) (both 2010).
- Jason Smith, Calling in the Fox (Sydney: Grantpirrie, 2009), np. If Smith draws a long bow, this is typical of the artworld spin that promotes Andy Warhol as interrogating celebrity and Jeff Koons as institutional critique.
- Trophy Hunter, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 2008.
- Jean Brown, Brisbane, 2009. In 2010, Zavros also produced a global campaign for Tommy Hilfiger, which currently appears in print advertising and on billboards throughout the US and Europe. Having specialised in appropriating advertising images, he has now come full circle.
- Another example is the video We Dance in the Studio (To that Shit on the Radio). Filmed in his studio as he paints, it stars his daughter Phoebe, watching herself in the mirror lip-synching and posing to Lady Gaga’s hit ‘Paparazzi’. The work overrides any prevailing anxiety about the singer’s pernicious influence, as one is carried along by Phoebe’s pleasure in her performance.
- My thanks to Shaun Gladwell for this observation. Zavros increasingly incorporates references to his own life in his paintings. Man (2009) and The Lioness (2010) represent his own possessions, and his daughter Phoebe appears in several works. It’s hard not to think of Zavros in relation to Oscar Wilde’s story The Picture of Dorian Gray. The question remains, what will happen once Zavros’s beauty fades? Will that change the way we read his work?
- See Rex Butler, ‘No Way Out’, Scott Redford: Guy in the Dunes (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1997), 28–37.
- Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1972).
- From the flyer for the exhibition Scott Redford: No Place Like Home, the Institute of Modern Art stand at the 2006 Melbourne Art Fair.
- Email to the author, 11 June 2008.
- Redford’s interest in making a movie is linked to the post-critical moment, which has seen many artists migrate to cinema. It began in the 1990s, when Larry Clark, Robert Longo, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Cindy Sherman made commercial features. They were quickly followed by Matthew Barney, Douglas Gordon, Miranda July, Steve McQueen, Shirin Neshat, and Piotr Ulanowski.
- For more on the Dammn project, see my ‘It’s Complicated’, Scott Redford: Introducing Reinhardt Dammn (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 2010), 17–28.