Sydney Morning Herald Column

Michael Zavros & eX de Medici

Published July 25, 2023
Michael Zavros, 'Charmer: Gucci' (2013)

Post-pandemic, the art museums are finding international blockbusters prohibitively expensive and loans hard to secure. For some, the only solution has been to fall back on the permanent collection, but in Brisbane, the Gallery of Modern Art has been more proactive. Dual mid-career surveys of Michael Zavros and eX de Medici are distinguished by the extraordinary commitment shown in the presentation of each artist’s work, including two handsome catalogues, and mural-sized installations in GOMA’s central corridor. The message is: “If we’re relying on the local product, we’re going to give it the blockbuster treatment.”

Michael Zavros, ‘V12/ Narcissus’, (2009)

Both artists have exceptional technical ability, a quality much admired by the general public. Beyond that, their preoccupations could hardly be more different. Stylistically, Michael Zavros is an exacting photorealist, but he knows that a successful contemporary artist needs more than technique. The works in his show, The Favourite, curated by Peter McKay, range across painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation – the latter being a Mercedes convertible parked in the middle of the gallery and filled with water.

Like so much of Zavros’s work, the Drowned Mercedes will polarise his audience. Some will find it too banal to simply fill a car with water and call it art, others will see it as a conspicuously wasteful gesture. Where some will detect an implicit critique of consumerism and our taste for luxury items, others will see a sign of the artist’s decadent prosperity. I don’t know who’d actually buy this work, if not a museum.

Michael Zavros, ‘Zeus/Zavros’ (2016)

This taste for ambiguity runs through the entire exhibition. Is Zavros celebrating fashion and luxury, or satirising our obsession with these things? Are his mythological references anything more than comedy, with a nod to his own Greek heritage? Is he portraying himself and his kids (although never his wife!) as if they were a model of a wholesome nuclear family, or is he playing with visual double entendres that are meant to disturb and unsettle?

For Zavros there is no right or wrong with questions of interpretation. Or if there is, he isn’t about to tell. It’s as if the hyperreal, ultra-precise nature of his work prompts him towards ever greater ambiguities of meaning. Were he to paint a silk tie lying on table it would be a mere still life, but by having the tie stand up like a rearing cobra in Charmer: Gucci (2013), proudly displaying its big-brand label, he is issuing a warning to potential fashion victims.

Michael Zavros, ‘The New Garden Drawing Room’ (2019)

A painting of his kids playing in the pool with an inflatable swan sounds innocent enough, until we see it is titled, Zeus/Zavros (2016), which leads to thoughts of the Greek God in the form of a swan ravaging Leda. He tries a variation on this theme in Phoebe is 11/Swan (2017), in which his daughter hugs the plastic swan as if she were auditioning for the role of St. Teresa in ecstasy. Now he is mock-censorious, chiding us for our sordid suspicions.

Zavros extends the irony to himself in works such as V22/Narcissus (2009), in which we find him gazing raptly at his own reflection in the highly polished bonnet of his Mercedes. That the pose is borrowed from Caravaggio adds a discordant ‘Old Master’ touch to this absurd scene. He takes self-deprecation a step further in the ‘Dad’ series, in which he slips a “more perfect” mannequin of himself into a series of family photos. Most viewers will probably see this idealised doppelganger as rather a dopey-looking figure – a true dummy.

Michael Zavros, ‘Dad likes winter’, (2020)

I was thinking of Zavros’s paintings of palaces with gleaming exercise equipment, when I read how the Vicomte and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who bankrolled a good deal of modern French art and literature, were fitness fanatics who insisted guests in their chateau should join their exercise program. Imagine, if you can, a sponging André Gide or Jean Cocteau doing gymnastics. The Zavros family would have been the perfect house guests.

If there’s anything missing from this broad-ranging exhibition, it’s possibly the most ambiguous of all Zavros’s works, the 2014 portrait of Ben Roberts-Smith, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial, in which the now disgraced war hero stands with his arms extended, as if firing a gun. Whatever we might have thought of the painting when it was first unveiled, events of the past year have given it quite a different connotation.




Where Zavros is coy about the content of his works, eX de Medici almost buries the viewer with information. In her catalogue essay for the show, Beautiful Wickedness, curator, Samantha Littley, needs a few paragraphs just to list the items included in de Medici’s large, aptly named watercolour, The Theory of Everything (2005).

eX de Medici, ‘The theory of everything’, (2005)

The work is a descendant of those Dutch still lifes that tell a story through the objects on a tabletop. De Medici has taken that process to extremes with a surreal combination of natural and artificial items: from a tortoise, snakes and tulips, to a chandelier, a gun, a glass poodle, skulls, jewels, playing cards, and on and on. Many things have taken on new identities. The tortoise is covered in precious stones – a reference, as Littley points out, to J-K. Huysmans’s decadent novel, Against Nature (1884). The chandelier seems to be ornamented with hand grenades.

eX de Medici, ‘Skull (blue and green)’, 2004

Artists are notoriously obsessive creatures, but de Medici is in a class of her own. The accumulation of detail – and meaning – in her large-scale watercolours is astonishing. Along with a fertile imagination, the artist is knowledgeable about art, politics, natural science, and a good many other subjects. She is clearly driven by her passions, be it anger at some injustice or an unquenchable fascination for a particular subject, most obviously the many species of moths she has studied during successive residencies at the CSIRO.

The moths occupy an entire room in this show and feature prominently in other galleries. They are painted in mind-boggling detail, each furry patch on a wing laid in with painstaking care. In most instances the insects are transformed by the addition of some foreign object or symbol where the abdomen should be. The great appeal of these moths, aside from their beauty and variety, may be that they are survivors who have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.

eX de Medici, ‘Pure Impulse Control’ (2008)

Other motifs that recur time and again, are the skull and the gun. The former is art history’s textbook symbol of mortality, the latter needs no explanation. What’s impressive are the endless metamorphoses to which these items are subjected in de Medici’s works. She may loathe guns, but she has learned all about them in her determination to get the details right.

The large works on paper steal the show, but the first rooms in this display are devoted to de Medici’s earlier work as a punk poster artist, and then a tattooist. She undertook this role with the same thoroughness she has brought to her watercolours, serving an apprenticehip with a famous Californian female tattooist, then returning to Australia to start her own business. For ten years she seems to have been the go-to tattoo artist for feminists, the queer community and other interest groups.

eX de Medici, ‘Skinny Day Ambush (Super Family)’ (2007)

De Medici took pride in working self-consciously as an artist in a field in which many practitioners were mere hacks. With the tattoo mania that has engulfed the western world in recent years, the quality of work can only have improved. De Medici may have had a positive impact on the local tattoo business, but she still has a way to go with her larger ambition of having a positive impact on the planet. It’s not for want of trying.



Michael Zavros: The Favourite

eX de Medici: Beautiful Wickedness

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 24 June – 2 October, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  22 July, 2023