Review: There Goes a Narwhal

Michael Zavros and Nell at Gertrude contemporary art space
Nell's bronze sculpture scared my 19 month old daughter. It is just life-like enough to trigger that sort of response - it appears to have been cast from a mold of a human body, presumably the artist's. And the mother-of-pearl eyes give her a blind/all seeing attribute and she is wielding a narwhal tooth staff, adding to the shamanistic quality. The bronze shaman-woman leads 33 glass ghosts - we are told that there is one of these for each year of the artist's life. The ghosts are quite lovely things - handblown bubbles of poultergeist whimsy. Very Proustian - all these past selves following us around. And very Proustian to suggest that our present self, the solid (bronze) self, should be directing the fragile (glass ghost) past selves, as we shape and re-shape our memories in light of present circumstances. This is self-mythologising - we all do it, all the time.
In Zavros' small paintings Narwhals frolic before baroque follies, a sharply dressed centaur strikes a pose while twinned long-tailed onagadori roosters reflect each other's improbable plumage. Zavros' painting is superb - these small detailed paintings reward careful viewing. Whereas Nell's work emphasises the personal aspect of myth, Zavros suggest more about how myths function as part of our culture and how they develop. Hence his onagadori roosters seem to propose a relationship to the mythical phoenix similar to that between the narwhal and the unicorn. His fashionable centaur equates the unreal world of fashion imagery with the unreality of Greek mythology.
The key work in this group of paintings seems to be 'unicorn in anticamera'. This photorealist painting of what looks like a holiday snap of a room decorated in high baroque style is meticulously rendered in monochrome. In the centre of the room a narwhal tooth is embedded in a sculptured unicorn head. This painting, of the works in this show, is the truest representation of the reality we actually inhabit. Yet even here, in the flashlit reality of a snapshot, on the wall in the depicted room is a painting of a biblical scene, reminding us again of just how embedded we are in our world of myth and fantasy.

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By Sam Leach

Sam Leach

Leach is an artist living and working in Melbourne. He was born in Adelaide in 1973 and moved to Melbourne in the early 90s. Leach completed his honours degree in painting at RMIT in 2004 and is currently doing his masters. In 2006 Leach won the Metro5 prize and the Geelong contemporary art prize. This year he was a finalist in the Archibald. Leach shows at Nellie Castan gallery in Melbourne (show coming up in June) and Sullivan and Strumpf gallery in Sydney