A Longing for Meaning: Michael Zavros and The Prince

Published 8 July 2013 Jane Denison

The horses and handsome men are still present in Michael Zavros’s latest exhibition, The Prince, but this time they’re mustangs and cowboys ensconced in the American frontier. It may appear like a radical change in subject for the artist who usually favours thoroughbreds and glamour models, but The Prince sees Zavros reverting to his early artistic practice of copying found imagery. That the found imagery is Richard Prince’s iconic Cowboy series suggests that Zavros has something to add to the appropriation issue that rattled the art world.

Having read positive reviews on The Prince held at Rockhampton Gallery early this year, I was excited to learn the show was traveling to Queensland College of Art in Brisbane. Perhaps it was the austere gallery space, but my first impression on walking into The Prince was the difference between it and the glitzy pizazz of Zavros’ The Glass at Tweed River Art Gallery last year. As the only visitor on a quiet Saturday afternoon, I had the chance to examine Zavros’ work without the hype of a commercial gallery or the buzz of the area’s most upbeat regional gallery.

Walking around the exhibition, I was surprised at how difficult it was to engage with Zavros’ latest series. It’s not that Zavros’ technical prowess is in question. In Prince/Zavros 6 (2012) and Prince/Zavros 11 (2012), Zavros expertly mimics Prince’s grainy surface to imbue a filmic quality. It was also a delight seeing Zavros’ technical virtuosity in watercolour. Yet, the sensual depth found in earlier works was missing – as was any trace of the artist’s wry and offbeat sense of humour. Undoubtedly, the Prince/Zavros series presents a new side of Zavros, and it’s one that takes itself seriously.

The Prince/Zavros series is ‘art about art’. As outlined in the catalogue essay, the series reference Richard Prince’s re-photographs of the iconic Marlboro campaign from the early 1950s. The Marlboro advertisements show a lone cowboy riding on horseback in vast, bucolic landscapes, and close-up shots of the cowboy lighting a well-earned cigarette. In 20 Ads that Shook the World, James Twitchell says the Marlboro man was so recognisable that there was no need to display the product name. In proving this point, in the 1980s Prince began lifting the text from these advertisements, re-photographing them and claiming them as his own – that is, as a work of art. Prince’s reconfiguring of the cowboy images into glossy large-format photographs had a twofold effect: they glorified the American cowboy as a model of macho masculinity, while also raising suspicion of the cowboy myth due to emerging research that linked cigarette smoking with cancer.

Zavros’ copies of Prince’s provocative images appear tame and subdued – and far removed from their sensationalised history. Prince’s cavalier approach enjoyed potency because it fed into a movement in American art of ‘hijacking’ and subverting media myths, whereas Zavros’ re-renderings seem laboured and anachronistic. Smaller works, such as Prince/Zavros 6 and Prince/Zavros 9, also lose their critical edge in translation and operate only as aesthetically pleasing images. Undoubtedly, the lone cowboy still reads as a heroic figure – but when removed from advertising billboards and freed from Prince’s notoriety, it is emptied of meaning and enters the realm of personal fetish.

The question remains of what Zavros adds to Prince’s series. At a loss for answers, I turn to the catalogue essay that says the relevance of the Prince/Zavros series is linked to changes in cigarette advertising under the Plain Packaging Act, and its contribution ‘to a mythology of nation building and masculinity not exclusive to America’s west.’ Although these claims sound tenuous, they weigh into the show’s premise that Zavros is working in the current of appropriation. The act of appropriation has always maintained two values: a shift of meaning, and the artist’s detached perspective so that no emotional sway influences the outcome of the appropriation. According to Isabelle Graw, historically the greatest danger of appropriation was for an artist to become fascinated by his or her material.

If being ‘fascinated’ by a subject negates the act of appropriating, a loophole in the exhibition’s premise is exposed. In interviews, Zavros openly expresses being fascinated by his subject. Is it possible that Zavros has adopted a new ‘detached’ criticality in the Prince/Zavros series? Perhaps – but then I recall Zavros talking in a public interview about The Python: ‘I have always had a fascination with the American Wild West, and I was interested in saving this romantic hero of the frontier.’

A longing to find meaning in Zavros’s work has always spurred commentators to look beyond its overt visibility. In this show, “appropriation” is a clumsy term to describe Zavros’ dedication to Prince’s Cowboys series. Of course, the curatorial premise shouldn’t affect the reception to the work – but it does. I leave the gallery feeling deflated and wishing for the return of Zavros’ signature Gatsby-style glitz and glamour.