There's a recurring image in a recent series of paintings by Mike Chavez - a crouching boxer with impossibly neat hair and shorts pulled up past his waist; his eyes are intensely focused, his whole body is poised for a punch. Scrawled across each is a slogan - 'Eyes on the Prize', 'Get Rich or Die Tryin', among other things - and sometimes, in a similarly clumsy hand, a date and a place. "I stumbled across a documentary about Filipino boxing champs from the '20's and '30's," says Mike, who moved to Melbourne from the Philippines at age three. "It seemed to be one of those rare instances where Filipinos triumphed on the world stage. There was something romantic about the images - the men were dapper but, at the same time, world class athletes. Boxers will always represent overcoming hardships to triumph, that sense of having a fighting spirit. That really related to me - being an artist, you're struggling against the norms of society and fighting that constant fight to continue what you do."
While this series, which also plays with advertisements from Manila and other images, explores his Filipino heritage, for a number of years there was a lot of the fighter in Mike's work. Coming back to Australia in 2000, for instance, from several years as an animator in the US, he was surprised by the conservative swing he witnessed. "I encountered racism as a child, and had thought there were signs in the '90's that Australia was heading in a positive direction - it was a shock in 2000 to see it had slipped backwards." From that sprung multiple images of old Holden utes, with captions reading 'Lucky Country' or 'Private'. In a later exhibition, around the time of the Iraq invasion, "which seemed like a time when free speech was being clamped down on", he plastered political posters of George W, Bush and John Howard on the wall of a gallery and invited visitors to graffiti on them. "They really got into the spirit of it," says Mike, who majored in animation at Queensland College of Art. "A lot of people got a thrill out of being able to do something that felt really wrong."
In all his work, which is both bold and multi-layered, and uses a mix of screen-printed and handpainted images, there's a real sense of beauty and often a touch of humour, which Mike puts down to his background as an editorial cartoonist in Queensland, as well as his time as an animator. "With the cartoons, I found it worked better to give people a sugar-coated, rather than a bitter pill, to swallow."
Talking birds and animals continue to be an ongoing theme, an obvious link with animation. The repetition in his work, too, he says, could be a "subconscious thing from animation. By repeating something, you give it extra oomph - I've found it to be quite a striking tool." He also credits the size of his paintings (which are up to 170x170cm) as a hangover from the meticulous wok of animation. "There's a certain physicality you can achieve in a larger painting, which gives you a lot of freedom," says Mike, who works out of a downstairs studio at his Melbourne house. "It's a reaction against the tiny pieces of paper I used to animate on - now I can explode onto a large canvas with a rainbow palette of colour, and even let mistakes find their way in - it's nice not having to be precious."