From the Archive

From the Archive

From The Archive

On From the Archive we will temporarily republish key articles from the Art + Australia Archive dating back to 1963. The Art + Australia Archive is a valuable resource of discussions and debates about art, artists and exhibitions that have shaped Australian art.

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Michael Zavros, Charm Offensive | Robert Leonard

Michael Zavros, Charm Offensive

Michael Zavros, Charm Offensive

Because he extends his sophisticated aesthetic across all areas of his life, from his art to personal dress and that gives him a complete signature style. Because he understands that just because you're an artist doesn't mean you can't dress well. Because he likes to stand out from the crowd and because he continues to be inspired by fashion. Catherine Caines'1

We have inherited the idea that artists should be critical; that they should reject received ideas, shock the bourgeoisie, rock the boat. This avant-garde cliché is ingrained in the way we talk about art; every aspiring art-school student is trained to cast their work as a critique of something or other. And yet, these days, some prominent art seems to be on an entirely different track, preferring instead to be appealing, entertaining and affirmative. We are experiencing what art historian Rex Butler has described as a 'post-critical" turn.2

Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami exemplify the change. They produce spectacular, crowd-pleasing, high-concept art. Their works involve high production values, necessitate armies of fabricators and publicists and are only possible because they have access to budgets, methods and platforms more typically associated with the entertainment industry than with art. They are post-pop artists operating out of the legacies of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, who showed that the abrasive avant-garde artist could mellow into the mainstream showman. Immersed in the business of art, the post-critical trio court column inches and embrace the idea of the artist as brand. They are helping to fudge the once-presumed divide between high-minded art and entertainment, as art is sucked deeper into what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer dismissed as 'the culture industry'.3

The post-critical turn increasingly informs the conditions under which artists work, changing terms of reference, changing expectations. Michael Zavros not only feeds into the post-critical moment, in the Australian context he exemplifies it, but in a unique way - one which reframes the distinction between critical and not-critical.

Zavros is an aesthete: he paints beautiful things beautifully. His subjects include fairytale palaces, gardens and follies; upmarket men's fashion, luxury cars and jewellery; Lipizzaner dressage horses, Japanese pedigree onagadori chickens and pretty boys. 

Zavros's subjects seem interchangeable; they are analogous to one another. For instance, his businessmen in bespoke suits and shiny shoes echo his overbred chickens with their extravagant, impractical tails. His subjects' quality and classiness is also mirrored in his impeccable, refined, photo-realistic rendering of them.

It is often said that Zavros's subject is beauty itself, but it is, more generally, symbols of status. His canon of beauty is aspirational—keyed to notions of privilege, tradition and the faux-aristocratic taste of luxury brands. Zavros's work speaks to a desire for status, and therefore also to our fear of not having it what television-philosopher Alain de Botton famously called 'status anxiety'.4 Consequently, Zavros has become a shibboleth. People either love him or loathe him, admire him or resent him. Those who love him think his work epitomises precisely what art should be (which is what they have or want, like and are}; those who loathe him think it is everything art should not be (class, ideology). The strength and clarity of Zavros's project lies precisely in his ability to polarise his audience.5

By picking subjects that seem prime candidates for deconstruction and critique but not deconstructing or critiquing them, Zavros foregrounds and flaunts his lack of criticality. Nevertheless, some writers argue that there is something inherently ambivalent in his hyper-aestheticism. For instance, curator Jason Smith has written:

Over the past decade Michael Zavros has produced super-real, highly seductive images that have elaborated a contemporary culture of narcissism, and that have scrutinised and deconstructed popular concepts of beauty and physical perfection... Another political strain and a predominating theme in Zavros's work is the interrogation of ideals of male beauty and physical flawlessness... Zavros's works tackle the vexed nature of marketing...6

While such readings find support in the artist's own statements, they are misleading. Rather than capture our experience of the work, they reflect our inability to discuss any art without resorting to the default-setting language of criticality, wherein a work can't simply express something, it has to elaborate, scrutinise or deconstruct it. For me, what is so sharp about Zavros's art is how utterly, rigorously and deliberately uncritical it is. In its sheer affirmation, it calls for a different kind of reading.

Zavros does not apologise for his subjects, or for those who identify with them. But as much as his works eschew criticality, they epitomise self-reflexivity. Zavros has painted hunting trophies, playing on the way his paintings have themselves become trophies for collectors. He has painted beautifully styled interiors (that look like they could be based on images from glossy interiors magazines) that can then be hung in collectors' homes (where they can be photographed for glossy interiors magazines). He even staged an exhibition of paintings of Balenciaga handbags in Jean Brown, the Brisbane luxury retail shop.7 The term mise-en-abyme is used to name the uncanny effect of nested representations, where paintings exist within paintings and interiors within interiors, where a picture of a trophy is a trophy, and where a painting of a handbag is displayed on the very shop shelf where you would expect to find the handbag. While the mise-en-abyme is routinely understood as a vortex that renders meaning unstable, in Zavros's case it has the opposite effect. It reinforces associations, as if there were no outside from which to view things differently.

Zavros welcomes his audience into the enclosure. In the small painting, Vr2 Narcissus, 2009, he admires his reflection in the bonnet of his Mercedes Benz SL600 sports car. The title refers to the Greek myth of a beautiful boy who, spurning the affections of Echo, preferred his own reflection. But Zavros's painting does not spurn lovers; it beckons them to join in. If the painting shows Zavros enjoying his good person reflected in the bonnet of his prized car, it invites the painting's self-satisfied owner-viewers to enjoy their own selves similarly, metaphorically reflected in their prized painting.

Mirror imagery is recurrent in Zavros's work. In Echo, 2009, new chrome weightlifting equipment is stationed somewhat incongruously in the famous mirrored hall at Versailles. Back in the seventeenth century, mirrors were prohibitively expensive, and the extravagant hall was Louis XIV's investment in his own power and magnificence—its mirrors reflecting paintings that celebrated his life and personage. Zavros's painting suggests that this gym gear—symbolising the widespread desire for the body beautiful­—is the contemporary echo, reflection or heir to aristocratic vanity.

Of course, Echo is also an echo of the art world's own Sun King, Jeff Koons - Zavros's patron saint. When Zavros painted it, Koons had just had his big vanity show at Versailles.8 Zavros and Koons both emphasise traditional craftsmanship (although Zavros does the work himself). Zavros's shiny barbells can be seen as a nod to Koons's stainless-steel sculptures such as Rabbit, 1986, which similarly sucked in its surroundings at Versailles. However, the differences between Koons and Zavros are more telling. Throughout his work, Koons plays on and scrambles the space between high and low in order to address kitsch - the dissipation of old forms of aristocratic high culture in the sentimental bad taste of the masses. But that's exactly what Zavros isn't interested in. He suppresses kitsch associations, so beautiful ideology can be enjoyed at face value."9

While uninterested in kitsch, Zavros does inject taints of negativity into his works. In Man, 2009, a skull is suggested by a still-life arrangement of luxury products that Zavros owns Carrera sunglasses become eye cavities and Prada shoes nasal ones, while a line of fragrance bottles (including Calvin Klein's 'Man" cologne) stands in for grinning teeth. Max could be seen as a vanitas or memento mori, but really it's a stretch to understand it as a warning against worldly trappings; it's more an advertisement for them. Similarly, Phoebe is dead/McQueen, 2010 - where Zavros imagines his demised daughter shrouded in an Alexander McQueen skull-patterned scarf—is not really belittling fashion, even if the depressed designer had just committed suicide. It's no "Et in Arcadia Ego'; more the opposite: 'Fashion, even in death?" it pledges.'10

When Zavros makes reference to conventional moralities, it is usually to invalidate them. V2 Narcissus may refer to a myth that warns us against vanity, but the painting embraces vanity. And although the erasing of the faces of male models in the Debaser drawings, 2007-, could remind us that we are fashion victims, actually it makes its subjects seem even more sublimely remote and beautiful (in the process suggesting that they actually had identities to rub out). On a similar note, in a 2011 set of photo etchings, Disappear here, Zavros's monogram 'MZ' is written, apparently in cocaine, on the black non-reflective face of a hand mirror. The monogram disappears as the powder is chopped into lines and consumed, leaving no monogram and no reflection. A nod to American writer Bret Easton Ellis, here Zavros suggests that the high life may come at the cost of one's very self. However, being more stylish than scary, these images enable us to entertain this possibility without being too put off. Perhaps loss-of-self is just collateral damage.

Recently Zavros has been upping the ante by incorporating politically contentious references into his works. The first eye catching feature of his painted interior The lioness, 2010, is a Bill Henson photograph in which a young girl plaintively eyes us from the darkness. We are initially compelled to assume she is the lioness of the title, only later noticing a lion skin draped over the sofa.

In the wake of the witch-hunt over Henson's sexualised depictions of underage girls, there's something creepy in associating a doe-eyed ingenue with skinned wildlife.'11 A study in endangered species and isomorphism, the interior Body lines, 2011, juxtaposes a striated painting by the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye with striped animal skins (from a tiger and its possible prey, a zebra). While we recognise the Kngwarreye as blue-chip trophy art (like Zavros's own paintings), it's hard to forget the dispossession of Australia's traditional owners - the fact that these works were produced in a situation of abject poverty. As the striped Kngwarreye was based on ceremonial body painting, the juxtaposition also suggests a distasteful link between Aboriginal skins and trophies of the hunt.12  

The apolitical might simply enjoy these interiors as stylish arrangements of self-evidently nice things. But those who make political connections will do so quickly. However, beyond prompting these political points, the paintings have nothing to actually say about them. The politics are quickly done-and-dusted; they sit in parentheses. After recognising them, we are left to disconnect from them and simply marvel at the works' skilful rendering of diverse and luxurious textures. In such works, Zavros isn't denying politics so much as overriding them. It's like those fashion-house window displays that present beautiful clothes on blindfolded, dismembered, trussed-up female mannequins—not because they haven't heard of feminism, but to show that they have and yet prefer to argue their preference for a higher principle. It seems pointless to subject them to a critique they have already absorbed. The presence of critical references in Zavros's works similarly serves to inoculate his work against critique.13

This principle is also at play in Zavros's video We dance in the studio (to that shit on the radio), 2010. Here we find the artist painting in his studio, while his young daughter Phoebe rob—wearing sunglasses, Mouseketeer ears and a tutu—watches herself in the mirror as she lip-syncs and strikes poses to the Lady Gaga hit Paparazzi. Gaga—herself a paragon of inoculation - is routinely demonised as a 'bad example', a pernicious influence on impressionable tweens, schooling them in coquettish sexuality and consumerism. However, the girl is not admonished, but encouraged in her pursuits by her proud father—and her innocent performance is truly captivating. She is, of course, a stand-in for the artist himself.

 Zavros's project encompasses references to his life—his love of horses and chickens, his children, his possessions and pleasures. But more than this, it encompasses his life itself. While some rail against the false consciousness created by advertising, pointing to the gulf between its representations and life as lived, Zavros's real life proves them wrong by catching up with his fantasy. Zavros is increasingly able to enjoy the lifestyle he depicts, to become what he paints—life imitates art. He is his own consummate artwork. The handsome, well-groomed and well-heeled artist has become a staple of stage-managed personality profiles, best dressed lists and VIP rooms. This charming man enjoys a symbiotic relationship with lifestyle magazines. The admiration is mutual: the magazines affirm the artist that affirms them (Zavros was GQ magazine's 'Artist of the Year’ in 2009). Zavros's media visibility is currently so high that we cannot see the work 'in itself'; we must read it in relation to the life (albeit a life totally mediated by the media). Thus, for all its appeal to the old-school virtues of fine draftsmanship and patient rendering, Zavros's work could also belong to a lineage of conceptual-art projects that explore the collapse of art into life.14 It is a performance. But is it a performance that opens out art or closes down life?

In the consistency, coherence and cunning of his post-criticality, Michael Zavros cuts an unusual figure. Other artists are postcritical. Other artists make likeable art. Other artists are rated, curated and collected. Other artists are profiled in the glossies, are well connected and live the good life. Other artists nag the boundaries between life and art. But Zavros has tied these thoughts together and granted them the force, clarity and self-consciousness of a project—a paradigm. In doing so he has become a reference point in Australian art that other positions must be read against. Because of this, his art is as much about what it is not as about what it is. It can be read both in itself, as a self-contained system (a hall of mirrors), and in terms of its relation to other work. The art world looks different with Zavros in it.

Perhaps we could understand this better if we swapped the terms 'critical' and 'uncritical' for 'neurotic' and 'pervert'. Neurotics don't know what they want; they are repressed, ambivalent, conflicted. They don't know whether to have an affair or stay faithful, whether they are gay or straight, whether it would be fun to have sex in a raincoat or not. They spend all their time dithering. Most of us are neurotics—it's quite normal. However, perverts are exceptional: they have no ambivalence; they know exactly what they want; they are focused. These days, when we speak about criticality in contemporary art, we are essentially talking about ambivalence—neurosis. Within the art system, criticality and conservatism are intertwined, making the standard art-worlder shamefully complicit. By contrast, as a proud pervert, Zavros is shamelessly complicit. He knows exactly what he's into: this type of sports car, this kind of horse and his own reflection.15

The Zavros Effect occurs when you throw a well-heeled, high-functioning pervert (whose desire is paradoxically aligned with what we are all supposed to want) into an art world stacked with envious, bitter neurotics. The neurotics are not only shocked by his shamelessness, sooner or later that also forces them to confront their own shame. Which is why Zavros—without being in the least bit critical—accidentally engenders a critique of criticality.


1. Catherine Caines, ‘Best Dressed 2011’, The Australian's Wish Magazine, S1 July 2011, p. 30.

2. See Rex Butler, ‘GOMA, the APT and the contemporary’, Eyeline no. 63.Winter 2007, pp. 32-34, and 'Candide in Brisvegas', Broadsheet, vol. 38, no. 1, 2009, pp. 31-33.

3. Theodore Adorno and Max Hockheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Seaford University Press, Paolo Alto, 2002.

4. Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, London 2004.

5. Zavros gets overwhelmingly positive press, both in the lifestyle glossies and in art’s trade magazines. But for an indication of the resentment that his work provokes you can’t go past the 2009 special issue of Brisbane’s bitchy art broadsheet The Incontinent Goat devoted to him. “Lifestyles of the rich and famous artists special: Wankers edition’ parodied a Matthew Condon profile on Zavros, ‘Glitter Stripes, Qweekend’, 1-2 August 2009, pp, 14-17, to imagine a parallel world in which he was a VB drinking bogan.

6. Jason smith, ‘Calling in the fox’, in Michael Zavros Calling in the Fox, exhibition catalogue, Grantpirrie, Sydney, 2009, n.p. My emphasis.

7. Balenciaga has cult status for fashionistas. Considered works of art their bags are the subjects of blogs and obsessive collecting.

8. Koon’s show ran from 10 September 2008 to 4 January 2009. Before the show opened, Zavros had already made works about Versailles.

9. The closer Zavros gets to Koonsian kitsch in I heart Versailles, 2007, in which a flock of birds flies in a heart formation above the picture perfect palace.

10. This painting won Zavros the prestigious Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2010 and $150000

11. In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Humbert first bedded Lolita in a hotel named the Enchanted Hunters.

12. Of course, tiger skin trophies are a reminder of the British Raj period of imperial rule in India prior to independence.

13. I borrowed the idea of inoculation from Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957)

14. I think of American dandy artist James Lee Byars and, at the other end of the style spectrum, his friend Joseph Beuys.

15. Thanks to Edward Colless for drawing my attention to the relevance of the neurotic/pervert dichotomy. 

Ex De Medici, An Epic Journey On A Lilliputian Scale | Ted Gott

eX de Medici, an epic journey on a Lilliputian scale

eX de Medici, an epic journey on a Lilliputian scale

By any accounts it has been a long road—more than a decade's journey from type-cast purveyor of 'whatever revulsion you experience by the defilement of luminous skin with dull ink’1 to praise for 'the renowned artist and tattooist eX de Medici', portraitist of Midnight Oil. And a road that Medici, who cares little for safeguarding an art- world reputation, is the first to detonate behind herself.

After a background in experimental art forms (such as photocopy, installation and performance), eX de Medici turned in 1989 to tattooing, and was at once marginalised from the mainstream art world and, ironically, marked out as unique within it. Transgression as curriculum vitae.2 Across the next decade, working from a number of tattoo studios in Canberra, she found herself acting as both muse and technician for an increasing client base. Drawn by the allure of her reputation for masterful drawing, and as a woman working in a male-dominated industry, she has also become an icon for the tattooed queer communities of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.4

A constant of eX de Medici's creativity has been her lament for the poignant fragility of life, joined with a desire to record the beauty of those salutary signifiers in which people seek hope and affirmation. The (at times) confronting physicality of her art has always been earthed in these entwined passions. The blood of 144 others, 1989-96, an installation of post tattoo blood swabs, and the 'Godscience' cibachrome photographs of similar swab residues, capture the essence of the vulnerability of the human body and remind us that the immune system is no longer impregnable. Such works are like tailings taken from the mine of Medici's tattooing, a signal that her art is in no way divorced from her tattooing practice, but integral to it.

This is the case with the intricate drawings that eX de Medici has created since 1989, using ballpoint pen, watercolour or coloured pencils. Her individual drawings have a strong visual resonance—they hang on the wall like votive icons, heraldic shields, or the blazons of battle. They have their genesis in the many symbols and devices Medici incorporates into her tattooing, yet also lead an independent existence and, in turn, feed back into new tattoo work.

There is a sense, too, in which eX de Medici's art compensates for her relentless loss of subjects, the wistful fact that at the end of the day: 'the only physical results remaining... after the tattoo are a personal collection of slides and the grungy swabs and patches smeared with ink and blood. The images walk out the door...’5 The life sized Canon laser prints of freshly tattooed 'subjects' in Medici's moving 1997 60 Heads installation celebrate the blood pact that has taken place between the tattooist and her clients. These images have immense psychological impact, recording as they do the manner in which the experience of watching the tattoo being done—of relaxing one's body to receive the needle and inks—is a collaborative act between artist and client, the memory of which is thereafter integral to the tattoo itself.

Other aspects of Medici’s photographic art function as an elegiac hymn to Canberra, the nation's 'toon-town' capital where she chooses to live. Not the elegant Canberra framed by tourist holiday snaps—but the darker capital, heroin-ville and hoon-ville, home of the summernats, of many kinds of speed-freaks, of bare breasted petrol girls and drunken, loutish, sexy gits. Hence the visual lament found in her large format jet-spray photographs pairing images of floral roadside shrines with tyre burn-out marks on a mournful stretch of highway.6 Or the nexus of sex and death considered in her emblematic Nova jet-prints of classic Australian car-hood ornaments (which are known as bodycatchers, from their efficacy at disembowelling passengers thrown across them in a car accident), images the artist regards as 'celibate objects without a context... removed from their dangerous whole’7

It was Medici's belief in tattoos as a litany of signs that sounded an alarm concerning the number of new, unknown clients who came to her requesting antisocial tattoos (which she refuses to create). Reflection on the allure of fascist symbols led to her enormous 'Spectre' drawings of 1996, in which emblems of hatred and white suprematism (such as the swastika, or the triskelion used by South Africa's Broederbond) are considered as echoes of the immense number of encyclopedic signs that are constantly being used in tattooing. The scale of the 'Spectre' drawings, and the dense foliage or wormlike masses that seethe around their tainted emblems, signify the rampant growth of fascism. Although not drawings made for tattooing, the 'Spectre' works have obvious connections to Medici's other interests. The dichotomy of these signs, for example, parallels the dichotomy of the blood given off during tattooing—a substance once viewed as friendly, but now seen as evil, and always potentially contaminated. Medici also recognises the ironic possibility for the 'Spectre' drawings to be misread as approbation rather than criticism of fascism's creeping pestilence: 'Marcel Duchamp always said that the viewer is the final phase of the work. But the viewer can also be the final twist of the knife in a work!’8

In early 1998 Medici saw the touring exhibition, 'An Exquisite Eye: The Australian Flora and Fauna Drawings 1801-1820 of Ferdinand Bauer. Drawn from the rarely seen collections of the Natural History museums of Vienna and London, the exhibition included dozens of the more than 2000 watercolours of native flora and fauna that Bauer made after sketches drawn in 1801-03 while natural history artist to Matthew Flinders's historic circumnavigation of Australia—a voyage recognised today as one of the greatest scientific expeditions of all time.9

Beyond any form of botanic work that Medici had ever encountered, Bauer's watercolours led her to a surprising decision to 'retrograde' herself. For some years her intensely skill-based tattooing work had been moving Medici away from the anti skill attitudes that once had informed her art, and this sea-change was mirrored by her increasing opposition to what she terms the 'K-Mart avant-gardism' of much contemporary art. The beautiful craft inherent in Bauer's work re-ignited Medici's desire to make something of value in an art climate where everything seemed so deliberately devalued. With complicit irony, she chose to work (like Bauer) in watercolour, a medium that in many ways remains valueless in the art market.

Thus began three years of obsessive work on two colossal watercolours. An epic journey on a Lilliputian scale. Every inch of Blue bower, 1998-2000, and Red colony, 2000, is filled to the brim, the works depicting hundreds of objects, along with dozens of species of plants, animals and insects. Each watercolour, cast predominantly in the sickly hues of its respective title, assaults the viewer with a vertiginous cascade of 'giant piles of crap'.10 Medici wanted the viewer's first reaction to these works to be directed not towards their representational aspect but to a more simple and visceral 'that took a long time to do'. Blue bower and Red colony are first and foremost Medici's contribution to art's debate about skill, which she sees as a vanishing quality. Beyond this, deeper meanings proliferate within them. Knowledge that Bauer had spent eight months drawing on Norfolk Island at the end of his voyages with Flinders led eX de Medici to return to Norfolk Island herself during the making of the watercolours, to explore her family's ancestry in Australia's penal colonies. The tumbled skulls and leg shackles that send a blue chill through Blue bower create a potent vanitas subtext with uniquely Australian overtones.

During the three-year gestation of these morbidly intense, red and blue watercolours, Medici both withdrew gradually from tattooing (she no longer works commercially, and now tattoos only personal friends), and developed deeper interests in natural-history illustration.

At the close of 2000, eX de Medici received an Australia Council Visual Arts and Craft Award for research at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC, which is managed by the CSIRO's Entomology Division at Canberra's Black Mountain complex). For more than seven months in 2001 she worked up intricate watercolour studies of dozens of species from among the thousands of unclassified and endangered Australian moth specimens held at ANIC. She was attracted to those species that remain unnamed and unclassified, and was also drawn to microlepidoptera, Australia's smallest moths. To the pleasure derived from exploring these vast terrains of the infinitesimally small was added her growing interest in natural-history 'illustration', an unfashionable discipline in today's art world: ‘In art, this form is not considered art, which is always an attractive reason to get curious.’11 For Medici this was painstaking labour, observing minute moths through a microscope, and then recreating their patterns and forms in meticulously slow watercolours. Deliberately reactionary, each one of her time-consuming and refined moth studies took some ninety working hours to complete. The results of Medici's research residency, fifty four watercolours documenting twenty-seven species of microlepidoptera, were unveiled in her exhibition 'Sp. eX de Medici' in November 2001.

eX notes modestly: ‘Sp.’ ‘rides a boundary between art and science. Natural-history illustration is a scientific discipline, of which I have no training, and these works are not accurate on that level, but useful in terms of pattern and the constructs of evolutionary mapping.’12 The 'Sp.’ Water colours are a love letter to Ferdinand Bauer from an artist working in synergy, not competition. Where Bauer sought perfect specimens, Medici remains drawn to the imperfect and the damaged. Interspersed. among the immaculate 'Sp.' specimens are images of insects with broken wings and crushed abdomens, impaled seemingly brutally on dissecting pins. These look back to one of ex's earliest naturalistic watercolours, made before her tenure at CSIRO, a study of a broken butterfly that a friend had retrieved from the grille of a car.

It was this difference in approach that caught the attention of Dr Marianne Horak, a CSIRO taxonomist specialising in the study of microlepidoptera and collaborator on the 'Sp.' project, with whom eX de Medici has formed a close friendship: ‘All I did was seduce her with the beauty of my small moths ...I think a large factor in the satisfaction of this project is the revelation of this usually hidden world, this wealth of colour and pattern in animals so small that they are revealed only under a microscope, and who fly at night in the dark where they cannot be seen.’13 Horak was also fascinated by the way in which Medici chose to pair each naturalistic moth study with a more abstracted watercolour, reworking the distinctive, vividly coloured markings of the species in an arrowhead form. Appearing almost to be a new genus, these arrowhead blazons trace a lineage back to Ferdinand Bauer through their evocation of the broad arrow of colonial authority that was stamped everywhere in Norfolk Island's penal history. Their emblematic presence also has links with Medici's tattooing practice as, of course, the 'Sp.' project recalls the artist's many tattoo designs incorporating butterflies, scorpions and other insect-like signifiers. Given these connections, it is not surprising that the 'Sp.’  arrowhead designs can also be read as shroud forms, cloaking in death the astonishing beauty of the species.

Microlepidoptera adorn the necks of the five band members in Midnight Oil: Nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground, 2007, eX de Medici's monumental (nearly two-metre wide) National Portrait Gallery commissioned depiction of the rock group. The artist placed Midnight Oil before the alien moonscape of Kakadu's Ranger uranium mine, and patterned their throats with the markings of five minute moth species known to have once lived in this ravaged landscape—an inspired touch whereby these activist musicians are enabled to speak visually against the destruction of our natural environment. 'These tiny, unclassified, endangered animals, seemingly insignificant fauna in the landscape, became the small voices of their five big hosts. Notwithstanding, moths gather around the flame burning at midnight.’14

As a tattooist Medici embraces the ephemerality of her work, the knowledge that it will pass from this world along with its many living canvases. And she feels ambivalent towards the Japanese practice of excoriating a deceased tattooee's skin disliking the manner in which flayed skin darkens and shrinks as it becomes vellum, changing the colours and patterns of the tattoos supposedly preserved upon it. Covering what has been described as 'an obscenely large sheet of vellum'15 the Midnight Oil portrait was fleshed out using quills fashioned from wedge-tail eagle feathers, and transfused with pigment from the sap of mangrove trees native to the Kakadu region. The artist has noted: ‘Curiously, that particular mangrove dye is usually used as a poultice on skin diseases and lesions. It was almost like a balm or medicine in the work.’16 In one sense, this haunting group portrait has been approached as though defying the post-mortem evanescence of Medici's other 'skin' work. By applying her mangrove salve to the dead skin of the supporting vellum, the artist was virtually painting a permanent portrait 'tattoo'.

eX de Medici remains a controversial figure for the art world; she doesn't fit And her work remains problematic. Only last year, two of the five photographic images she designed for placement along inner city tram routes during Melbourne's 2001 Midsummer Festival were excluded by the Roads and Traffic Authority for their 'unacceptable imagery’. Medici's most recent works may fare no better when they reach the public domain. The artist has a collection of shotgun shells that she has picked up from Canberra's main streets. Disturbed by the current attempts of western governments to dismantle individual rights and get people to return to order, even if at gun point, Medici is engaged on a long-term project involving frottaged guns, knives and swords. Like tattoos, weapons are beautiful, and powerful; but in the wrong hands they are very dangerous indeed.


1. Robert Nelson, Scratching beneath the aesthetic Visual art Indelible; 60 Heads, Age, 5 February 1997, B sp.9. While written from the premise that 'All tattoos are ugly, even when the motif is quaint or friendly Nelson acknowledged that the two exhibitions he was reviewing have to be seen and deserve to be debated by people more sympathetic than me'. On the dichotomy of Medici being either 'celebrated, or reviled' within the art world, see Gordon Bull, The scandal of eX de Medici, Photo file, no. 56. May 1999, pp. 12-19

2. Lenny Ann Low, 'Good oil on a new acquisition', Sydney Morning Herald, March 1997. pp. 48-52.

3. For a good account of Medicis beginnings in tattooing, see Kimberly O'Sullivan, eX de Medici: The interview, Wicked Women, no. 24, 1995, pp. 34-6 See also Michael Desmond, The illustrated woman: eX de MediciWorld Art.vol. 1, no.1, 1994, pp 72-5

4. On this aspect of Medici's practice, see Feona Studdert,'X marksthe spot, Outrage, no. 166, March 5 1907. pp. 48-52

5. Jenny McFarlane, No dumb surface, in 60 Heads: eX de Medic, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, 1996. p. 14.

6. These were included in 'Close Quarters, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and Monash University, Melbourne, 8 October 28 November 1998.

7. eX de Medici, letter to the author, 22 October 1999. 

8. Interview with eX de Medici, Canberra, 30 November 1996. 

9. Peter Watts, Jo Anne Pomftett and David Mabberley, An Exquisite Eye. The Australian Flora and Fauna Drawings 1801-1820 of Ferdinand Bauer, exhibition catalogue, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997. The exhibition was held at the Museum of Sydney, 13 December 1997 ~ 19 April 1998; and National Library of Australia, Canberra, 27 April- 19 July 1998 

10. Interview with eX de Medici, Canberra, 31 January 2001. There are many riddles contained within these complex watercolours. The title of Blue bower, for example, has been aptly described as a hybrid of the official colonial artist Ferdinand Baver, and the Australian Bower Bird, which adoms its nest with anything blue}see Christine James, 'Vainglorious, Art Monthly online, 26 November 2000. Blue bower and Red colony were first shown in eX de Medici and Eve Sullivan's joint exhibition, 'Vainglorious, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, 2 September19 November 2000. 

11. eX de Medici, quoted in 'Artist drawn in by taxonomist. CSIRO Entomology Press Release, 16 November 2001

12. eX de Medici, Broadsheet notes to Sp. eX de Medici, Helen Maxwell Gallery, Canberra, 16 November16 December 2001, p. 2

13. Dr Marianne Horak, speech delivered at the opening of Sp. eX de Medici, Helen Maxwell Gallery, Canberra, 16 November 2001.

14. eX de Medici, 'Midnight Oil: "Nothing's as precious as a hole in the ground", in Magdalene Keaney, So You Wanna Be a Rock Star: Portraits and Rock Music in Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2001,p.53

15. Magdalene Keaney, ‘Seduce and destroy', Portrait, Bulletin of the National Portrait Gallery, Surnmer 2001, p. 14. The Midnight Oil portrait is painted on six sheets of British vellum, joined together seam Tessly by Morticia Burke, a fetish leatherworker friend of the artist (and part time mortician} 

16. eX de Medici, quoted in Low, op.cit

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