Michael Zavros is a very 21st century artist. Known for a fastidious, hyperreal style of painting and a preoccupation with fashion and luxury goods, he would have been anathema in those days when the avant-garde strove to make art that was not a marketable commodity. Marketability is Zavros’s great and abiding theme, although he comes at it from an oblique angle.
Zavros is intensely aware of the anachronistic nature of realist painting today and has found ingenious ways of repackaging his work for a cutting-edge audience. One of those strategies has been a form of tongue-in-cheek autobiography in which the artist and his kids appear as abject fashion victims bedecked with designer clothes and sunglasses. Zavros obviously finds these things attractive, but recognises it’s a little shameful to be enslaved by labels and appearances, let alone encourage the same tendencies in your chldren.
It’s precisely this ambiguity he exploits. Is his work a celebration of consumerism or a sly critique? Is he a hopeless narcissist, or an actor playing a role? A ‘bad dad’ who encourages his kids to value all that is expensive and exclusive instead of those salt-of-the-earth, democratic values we view as fundamentally Australian – or a satirist who exposes our casual hypocrisy?
With Zavros it’s not an either-or proposition but a delicate balancing act. In A Guy Like Me, his debut exhibition with Sullivan + Strumpf, the artist has pushed his habitual irony to a new limit by swapping his photorealistic style of painting for actual photography.
The show consists of eight large-scale coloured prints, featuring a character called “Dad”. It’s a mannequin of the artist himself, or rather a mannequin with a perfect physique topped with a facsimile of Zavros’s head. In these pictures Dad is shown wearing designer shades and knits. In one he sports a laurel wreath around his head, like an ancient Greek athlete. He snuggles up to his kids or his horse, and peers at us from the driving seat of his red Mercedes.
Despite all this he remains a dummy with a perpetually blank expression. Dad may have all the right gear but he’s no more than a generic parent for whom the lifestyle accessories provide an ineffective wedge against creeping middle age. Beyond the self-deprecating humour perhaps Zavros feels a twinge of anxiety about that day he looks into the mirror and sees Dad staring back.
After the intensely self-conscious art of Michael Zavros, it’s almost a shock to turn to Gunybi Ganambarr’s Dhanun Nalma: Here We Are, at Annandale Galleries. Although he lives in a small community in Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, there can hardly be a more naturally talented artist anywhere in Australia today or a more versatile one. Whether he is carving and painting a tree trunk, engraving an elaborate design on a sheet of metal, or creating dazzling patterns on shiny insulation foil, Gunybi is never less than masterful. Nothing escapes his attention, not even the drum of an old washing machine that has been inscribed with the most intricate linework.
We have grown accustomed to the idea that Indigenous artists work within a tightly defined set of rules, being forbidden from using certain motifs by complex systems of privilege and taboo. What’s most surprising about this extraordinary innovator is that he remains entirely within the boundaries of orthodoxy. Gunybi has revealed the progressive capacities of Indigenous art, showing that its religious and customary strictures do not preclude formal experimentation.
The centrepiece of this show is Guynybi Alupanel Buyku, the artist’s largest and most ambitious variation on the kind of work that brought him success in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards of 2018. A meeting of currents engraved on a panel measuring 451 by 301 cms, it’s a breathtaking achievement – a piece deeply connected to the natural world, with its play of salt and fresh water so important to Yolngu culture. It’s also an optical abstraction that shimmers with every touch of light.
In earlier exhibitions Gunybi virtually reinvented the larrakitj pole, traditionally used to contain the bones of the dead. For years these poles have been made largely for sale as works of art, and nobody else has come up with as many new twists. The poles in this show are barely recognisable as such – they are wooden sculptures that make use of every natural curve or bump in a tree trunk. Like all Gunybi’s work they project an amazing dynamism.
Gunybi’s co-exhibitor at Annandale is Malaluba Gumana, another great Yolngu artist who died in February this year. This will probably be the last commercial exhibition of Malaluba’s intricate, distinctive works using her trademark lotus pond and rainbow serpent motifs. In these three large panels and four towering poles, we can see what a talent we have lost.
Finally, an exhibition that I can’t pretend to be objective about, as I’m the curator. Normally I’d be quick to review anything by the one-and-only Li Jin, but critical detachment is not possible when you’ve been involved in selecting the work and hanging the show. I may be utterly compromised but I’d still encourage viewers to go see what it’s all about.
Li Jin: To Live (It Up) at Vermilion, is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Sydney since 2013, when he showed with the late Ray Hughes. The title borrows from Yu Hua’s famous novel which was made into a 1994 movie by Zhang Yimou. It presents an epic sweep of modern Chinese history which overlaps with much of Li Jin’s life. These years, so crushing for many, were empowering for Li Jin. A hedonist in the best sense, he sidesteps the political agonies of modern China, and draws sustenance from the positive energies around him. His works brim with wit and self-deprecating humour, celebrating those timeless subjects: food and sex.
Although a master of brush-and-ink techniques and a skilled calligrapher, Li Jin is the very anthithesis of the solemn, academic artist. He is more closely aligned with those drunken, laughing Zen painters who valued action over contemplation. The sheer variety of work in this exhibition defies summarisation. The menu includes small vignettes that read like stills from imaginary movies; a large, very free ink work called The Immortals; two fans, with rows of bird-footed figures; a delicate scroll painting, and a long picture of food dangling from hooks.
One of the strangest works is a Last Supper called Banquet for the times, which shows Li Jin surrounded by grotesques, wearing a hat and tie that might have been borrowed from Ray Hughes. Past and present, male and female, reality and fantasy, beauty and ugliness all have a seat at the table.
Michael Zavros: A Guy Like Me
Sullivan + Strumpf, 15 October – 14 November, 2020
Gunybi Ganambarr: Dhanun Nalma: Here We Are
Malaluba Gumana: Seven Works – A Tribute
Annandale Galleries, 7 November, 2020 – 10 January 2021
Li Jin: To Live (It Up)
Vermilion Art, 5 November – 12 December, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November, 2020