In Roman mythology the story is told that one day while out hunting, the handsome youth Narcissus spurned the advances of a pertinacious nymph, Echo. Heartbroken by his refusal, Echo fell into despair and stayed hidden in the woods, pining for her unrequited love until only her voice remained. Heeding the cries of Echo and others rejected by this haughty youth, Nemesis, the divine spirit of retribution, condemned Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection and thus embark on an eternity of insatiable longing.
Narcissism, the attribute of extreme admiration for oneself, imbues the paintings of Brisbane-based artist Michael Zavros. In 2009 the thoughtful and unnervingly precise photorealist painter submitted a controversial painting for the lucrative Archibald Prize administered by the Art Gallery of NSW. Entries for the prize are restricted to portrait painting but Zavros’ finalist contribution bent the rules to expose the vapid, irrational habits that permeate popular culture.
His painting, titled Man (2009), depicts a pair of Carrera sunglasses (from the luxury Italian sports company) for eyes, a pair of Prada dress shoes for a nose, and a line-up of glass cologne bottles (including Bulgari, Yves Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein) for the smiling mouth. ‘This is man, he is little more than a construct of luxury products,’ Zavros seems to be suggesting.
He talks openly about being complicit in the current day cult of narcissism. Dressed in an immaculate grey wool suit and pink shirt for his most recent exhibition opening at GrantPirrie Gallery in Sydney, he presented a convincing façade, “Fashion and contemporary culture is defined by conspicuous consumption,” he said, and “I am complicit in this presentation.”
Zavros travelled to Milan for an Australia Council arts residency in 2001 and became besotted with the voluptuous palazzi and palaces. This was compounded in 2002 when time in Paris allowed Zavros to visit the Palace of Versailles, the centre for Louis XIV’s royal court, which is viewed by many as the ultimate example of self-adoration by the monarch also known as the Sun King.
Echo (2009), the large-scale photorealist painting that spawned from these visits (a tribute to the aforementioned nymph) is a reflection on the nature of narcissism throughout the age. “The Palace of Versailles seemed to realise such heights of achievement but [also stands as] testament to the depravity of mankind, it’s greed is almost palpable,” Zavros explains. “It is the theme park of its time”.
The ostentatious Hall of Mirrors in the King’s private apartment (the subject matter of Echo) is the pinnacle of this greed. Lined with floor to ceiling mirrors, the reflection of the rich Baroque interior and, by association, the image of the Sun King bounces perpetually around the room. In Echo, Zavros inserts a cluster of chrome weight benches into the room, which similarly cast reflections from their shiny exteriors. This composition, and Zavros’ practice in general, conveys the analogy that the modern day obsession with frequenting a mirror-lined gym in order to create a ‘body by god’ is no different from the Sun King’s dogmatic attempts to be elevated into the realms of the gods. Both are governed by folly.
Balnaves Contemporary Painting
March 5 – May 23, 2010, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.