Jess Berry

Fashion, Fantasy, and Fiction in Contemporary Queensland Painting

The contemporary fashion magazine offers its reader a world of fantasy, desire and indulgence—a space in which to dream and masquerade in alternate identities and transformative personas. As Diana Vreeland, former editor in chief for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar once said, “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.”1

For Queensland-based painters Abbey McCulloch, Kirsty Bruce and Michael Zavros the fashion magazine offers the idealised imaginary space that Vreeland describes, yet for each of them there is a tacit understanding that such images are fraught with the tensions of artifice and superficiality. Their observations of how fashion might be translated and received in everyday urban cultures far removed from fashion’s utopias, offers each of them important critical distance to explore concepts of identity, beauty, and self-presentation in their paintings.

Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, W, and Russh are among the many magazines that are key sources for Abbey McCulloch’s portraits of women that deal with issues of self-image and feminine masquerade. McCulloch is a keen observer of style and is highly aware of the body-confident and conscious culture that is on display at the Gold Coast’s surf beaches that surround her in everyday life. The Surfers Paradise strip’s highly polished façade has encouraged McCulloch to look beneath the surface of superficial beauty and glamour to reveal the complex and the contradictory.

Like the fashion magazine, McCulloch’s images seduce the viewer with gelato hues and luscious surfaces, however her version of beauty is tainted by the unsettling and strange. The women she depicts are at once defiant, self-conscious and raw. This is particularly evident of her Archibald-finalist entries of Naomi Watts (2013) and Toni Collette (2007), in which she unpicks the highly constructed images of perfection that the fashion media portrays of celebrity lifestyle. Instead, she reveals the multifaceted elements of these women’s identity and experience, which is as equally flawed and forsaken, as it is glamorous.

The model’s stylized fashion pose provides the dramatic narrative to these paintings and the artist spends many hours sourcing fashion images until she finds a gesture or look that portrays a dynamic that she describes as both “vulnerable and tenacious”. Her latest series of paintings exhibited by Helen Gory at Art Stage Singapore explore the theatricality of the model’s fashion pose to consider how everyday women construct their own image and identity through the photographs they choose to reveal and conceal on social-media platforms. For example, The Kingfisher (2013) uses a combination of fashion illustration sketch and raw gestural painting to highlight the discrepancy between the artifice and aspirational fashionable figure and the imperfect, messy reality that is women’s lives. As the artist explains, “The abstraction or distortion in my images is a way of commenting on the streamlining of our own perceived image, a desired self, something other than who we are.”2

Like McCulloch, Brisbane artist Kirsty Bruce derives much of her source imagery from fashion magazines and is drawn to the ‘dreamlike’ fashion fantasies of Frankie, Amelia’s Magazine and Lula. While Bruce’s paintings have an ‘otherworldly’ and enchanting quality about them due to the sources of her imagery, she is also careful to draw attention to fashion’s limitations, and the need to look at fashion photography objectively.

Her intimate figurative drawings and watercolours examine the constriction of women’s identities through the imperatives of fashion and beauty, where her flawless draftsmanship highlights the futility of this pursuit in her exacting replication of existing fashion photographs. For example, her Untitled (2010–11) series is an installation of 55 small-scale fashion images, each portraying young women immaculately styled and cosmetically constructed, yet their gestures and facial expressions reveal melancholy, boredom, introspection, dissatisfaction and wistfulness. In disclosing these desolate states, Bruce reminds us of the pretense of glamour and how it ultimately tricks us with promises of unfulfilled desires. As Bruce describes of this relationship, “I have always had a love/hate relationship with fashion magazines, I find fashion photography interesting… the beautiful clothing, the seamless glamour…on the other hand, the images are unrealistic and unattainable—a fantasy world with sinister undertones making us feel inadequate and under pressure.”3

While these glimpses underneath the costume of feminine masquerade might appear critical, the installation of the work is reminiscent of a teenage girl’s bedroom wall—a space for daydream, imagination and contemplation. For Bruce, and indeed her viewer, this is a fantasy world to escape to beyond the “ordinary, everyday reality” of Brisbane urban existence.

Michael Zavros similarly views the seductive fictions of the fashion magazine as an exotic world isolated from everyday realities. His aesthetic is based in Eurocentric luxury and classicism; a visual understanding remote and distant to his observations of the Gold Coast, where he grew up, and its constantly shifting appearance of synthetic glamour and artifice. While the images he creates from magazine and advertising sources have been critiqued for their lack of criticality, in fact, Zavros’ immaculate realist style exploits the surface qualities of the medium to accentuate the perfection of these images. For example, his striking series of centaur/model paintings are a fitting allegory for the way that magazines and advertising construct beguiling yet fanciful fairy tales around fashion.

In works such as Gucci/Black (2008), Zavros juxtaposes the natural magnificence of the horse’s body with the contrived and exaggerated pose and gesture of the male model highlighting that the idealised male image is an unattainable objective built on myth. As the artist describes of the works, “I wanted to riff on the folly of beauty… and merge it with classical mythology. In Australia it is almost anathema to talk about male beauty.”4

Zavros’ exploration of the centaur figure as a metaphor to explore male vanity is part of the artist’s overall project that deals unashamedly with narcissism and its relationship to the projection of desired self. While Zavros’ images are alluring for their meticulous consideration of surface, there is something of the vanitas tradition in the way that the artist’s oeuvre constantly reminds us of the transience of beauty and the futility of pleasure. These considerations are prominently explored in his Debaser series of charcoal drawings in which he exquisitely renders images of male models and then erases their painstakingly drawn faces. In denying the presence of facial expression, and obscuring our yearning for youth and beauty, Zavros highlights the blankness of these forms of appearance in the fashion photograph, and the hollowness of the space onto which we project our dreams and desires.

The vexations of fashion, its ambivalence, futility, transience, artificiality and superficiality are shared concerns for McCulloch, Bruce and Zavros. While investigating this subject matter might draw these very same criticisms to their art of beauty, in fact the seduction of the painted surface is in many ways the perfect medium to investigate how fashion’s fantasies and desires operate. These paintings offer the viewer exactly that ambivalence, for they are a mirror onto which to project our own ideas of beauty—a reflection which ultimately leaves us longing for more.

Abbey McCulloch, 'Naomi Watts', 2013. Oil on Canvas, 100cm x 100cm
Abbey McCulloch, 'Naomi Watts', 2013. Oil on Canvas, 100cm x 100cmImage courtesy of the artist
Abbey McCulloch, 'Kingfisher', 2013. Oil on Canvas, 120cm x 90cm
Abbey McCulloch, 'Kingfisher', 2013. Oil on Canvas, 120cm x 90cmImage courtesy of the artist
Kirsty Bruce, 'Untitled' (detail), 2010-2011. Synthetic polymer paint and watercolour on paper, 55 sheets ranging from 14.6cm X 7cm to 39.5cm x 27 cm (installation, dimensions variable)
Kirsty Bruce, 'Untitled' (detail), 2010-2011. Synthetic polymer paint and watercolour on paper, 55 sheets ranging from 14.6cm X 7cm to 39.5cm x 27 cm (installation, dimensions variable)Image courtesy of the artist
Kirsty Bruce, 'Untitled' (detail), 2010-2011. Synthetic polymer paint and watercolour on paper, 55 sheets ranging from 14.6cm X 7cm to 39.5cm x 27 cm (installation, dimensions variable)
Kirsty Bruce, 'Untitled' (detail), 2010-2011. Synthetic polymer paint and watercolour on paper, 55 sheets ranging from 14.6cm X 7cm to 39.5cm x 27 cm (installation, dimensions variable)Image courtesy of the artist
Michael Zavros, 'Gucci/Black', 2008. 195cm x 250cm, Oil on Canvas
Michael Zavros, 'Gucci/Black', 2008. 195cm x 250cm, Oil on CanvasImage courtesy of the artist
Michael Zavros, 'Debased Dior', 2009. Charcoal on Paper, 122cm x 86cm
Michael Zavros, 'Debased Dior', 2009. Charcoal on Paper, 122cm x 86cmImage courtesy of the artist
1Diana Vreeland cited in Lisa Vreeland Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel, Abrams: New York, 2011, 48.
2Abbey McCulloch, email to the author, 14 February 2014.
3Kirsty Bruce, email to the author, 12 February 2014.
4Michael Zavros, email to the author, 20 February 2014.
Jess' Reading List:
  • Berry, Jess. 2010. ‘Show Ponies and Centaurs: The Male Dandy Revisited.’ In Fashion Forward edited by Paula De Witt and Maura Crouch, Oxfordshire: Interdisciplinary Press.
  • Helen Gory Gallery. 2014. ‘Abbey McCulloch.’ http://helengory.com/Abbey-McCulloch
  • Kubler, Alison. 2007. ‘Queensland Painters: The new breed.’ Art & Australia. Vol. 45 No 1:104-15.
  • Lehmann, Ulrich. 2002. ‘Fashion Photography.’ In Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography edited by Ulrich Lehmann and Jessica Morgan, Ostfildern-Ruit: Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and Hatje Cantz.
  • Leonard, Robert. 2011. ‘Michael Zavros: Charm Offensive.’ Art & Australia. Vol.49 No 1:100-109.
  • Michael Zavros. 2011. http://www.michaelzavros.com/#
  • Milani Gallery. 2009. ‘Kirsty Bruce.’ http://www.milanigallery.com.au/artist/kirsty-bruce
  • QAGOMA. 2012. ‘Contemporary Australia: Women: Kirsty Bruce.’ http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/past/2012/contemporary_australia_women/artists/kirsty_bruce
  • Shinkle, Eugenie (ed). 2008. Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion. London: IB Tauris.
  • Vreeland, Lisa. 2011. Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel. New York: Abrams.
  • Wells, Rachel. 2005. ‘The Art of Being a Woman.’ The Age. 16, viewed 5 March, 2014, http://www.theage.com.au/news/Arts/The-art-of-being-a-woman/2005/02/15/1108229993896.html
  • Zahm, Olivier. 2002.‘On the Marked Change in Fashion Photography.’ In Chic Clicks: Creativity and Commerce in Contemporary Fashion Photography edited by Ulrich Lehmann and Jessica Morgan, Ostfildern-Ruit: Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and Hatje Cantz.

Published in , on March 11, 2014.