In the dark of night, fearing death


Michael Zavros is a Brisbane-based artist. In a short Q&A he speaks with Off Campus about his 2010 Doug Moran Portrait Prize winning painting. “Until I became a parent I didn’t fear death. Now as I wait for sleep in the dark of night I am visited by visions of my children befalling some tragedy and being taken from me. And so now I fear death. This painting confronts the unthinkable.”

OC: What made you want to be an artist?
MZ: To me it was never something I ever really made a quest to do. I always just made art, I always just went to draw for hours in my room. And that question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was never asked of me. It was just one of those things, you know, that I expected and that my family expected that I would always do.

OC: What was the concept behind your artwork “Phoebe is dead/McQueen”?
MZ: Well, I mean, obviously it’s a portrait. But I think it’s much less a portrait of Phoebe, my daughter. It doesn’t tell you a lot about her. It doesn’t tell you a lot about me as an artist either. It instead describes the relationship between us. I think that it’s a portrait of our relationship. It’s a painting of what I fear the most as a parent and what, I suppose, is the vision that comes to me in the dark of night. That some tragedy might happen to my children. It’s almost like painting it can prevent it, which of course it can’t.

OC: What sort of criticism have you received of the art work?
MZ: Um, it’s pretty scarce that I’ve received criticism that is constructive criticism of the work itself. So there’s been nothing in the way that the painting has been carried out. But any criticisms of the work, or any sort of negative comments are kind of what I expect and what I was trying to deliver. It’s a difficult work.  It is cold, it’s very disturbing. That’s what I was trying to portray in the work. It was difficult for me to paint. It was difficult to look at. So that to me, the comments that are to be a criticism, were actually my intentions.

OC: Did you expect the audience to react the way that did to the work?
MZ: Um, yes. I mean it wasn’t too bad. There is a lengthy artist statement that goes with the work, which has been in a lot of the media coverage, over the process. And I think that has stopped most of the criticism that may have come with the work.  But I was given the opportunity to explain the work when I won and always when I was describing the work I’d mention, which is something I forgot to mention before, is that she plays dead all the time. Like most kids her age, they have this naive fascination with death, in almost a fairytale kind of way. So she plays dead constantly and that was important to me as well. It looks like the figure is still alive. It doesn’t look dead. She has this sort of flush of life in the face and you can tell the figure is alive.

OC: Do you think art should be controversial?
MZ: Art should just be, I think. If it’s political art or controversial art. I think that’s just something that you do. I mean, it’s not for everyone. I think that art should attempt to be something more than just be beautiful. It should have a bigger purpose. I think a lot of contemporary artists that seek to shock, don’t manage to do so. And it’s interesting when you look at what actually does have an impact, in my opinion. You don’t need to have all your hard core, or hard edge contemporary arts to pack a punch. It can be something incredibly traditional and very beautiful, like a painting. And I think that in the case of my work, it was confronting because it was beautiful to look at. I was a very beautiful work that portrayed something difficult to look at. Aesthetically, it was a pleasing painting to look at and I think that’s what was hard about it. It’s not sort or trying to fight anyone.

Featured photo: Artist Michael Zavros with his daughter Phoebe. Photo: Edwina Pickles/SMH, used with permission from the photographer

4 Replies to “In the dark of night, fearing death

  1. Wonderful stories that you won’t read anywhere else, stunning photographs, no sign of fawning obeisance to News Ltd that these days even seems to affect the ABC!

    Geeze, who do you lot reckon you are!

    In all seriousness, whoever you are, keep it up! Great stuff!

  2. I loved reading what the artist had to say about his own painting. I would describe this type of image as almost taboo in our society – no parent wants to think about it, but has it crossed every parent’s mind at some point? I too have images of what could befall my beloved children and Zavros has normalised this fear with art. I love that his words, as well as his painting, are now there for us to absorb. His thoughts on what went on his canvas are much more powerful than other people’s reactions. Thank you choosing this artist and this painting for a Q&A.

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