A number of years ago, in the countryside south of Stuttgart in Germany, I stumbled across a stable yard where the owners kept the most magnificent horse I had ever seen. It was a warm blood, a particular breed much loved by enthusiasts for its combination of remarkable elegance and dexterity with the power of a large farm animal. It is, like most horse breeds, a testimony to humankind's long history of genetic engineering and an obsession with perfectible biology. Consequently, this horse conformed to every notion I had of the classical beauty of horse-flesh, as minutely detailed in Xenophon's The Art of Horsemanship.
Stuttgart derives its name from a long history of horse breeding but today it is more notable as the home of Mercedes Benz and that company's logo hovers above the train station like a beacon. There are obvious comparisons to be made between the refining of horse breeds and high-end mechanical engineering, or indeed luxury fashion. It is the promise of the ownership of something as close to perfection as we can humanly achieve, expensive to own but bestowing on us all the status and refinement we imagine human existence pursues.
In his body of work, Everything I wanted, exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Michael Zavros has created a meditation on this very European conflation of perfectible nature and human design He juxtaposes remarkable images of horses in movement with sumptuous baroque interiors and the details of prestige cars and fashion. Overlooking the entire gallery are two taxidermic trophy heads, a Greater Kudu and a Springbok.
Zavros in the past has been well known for his photorealist paintings of advertising images and the details of men's fashion. With this collection of work his range expands into a more poetic and critical appraisal of the dynamics of representation. Still rendered in meticulous detail with remarkable technical skill, Zavros's latest work takes us more intriguingly into the human quest for possession, and the beauty and sadness this creates.
The most striking works in this exhibition are paintings of falling horses. They are powerful images of powerful creatures, made sad and vulnerable by the painter's decision to rotate the image and let gravity have its way with them. They speak about the symbolic power of representation and the control we wield over a parallel world of images.
While on one wall we are overpowered by these large scale paintings of horses in freefall, opposite we are required to study carefully the detail of miniature representations of museum interiors, fashion stores and moments caught in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The interiors work best when painted in varying tones of monochrome (sepia, cyan, etcetera) where they are explicitly paintings of photographic representations. By re-presenting the photographs found in souvenir catalogues and on postcards, Zavros emphasises the trophy-like nature of these images.
The stuffed heads of two African animals displayed at opposite ends of the gallery convey an understanding that the European mind-set has had very real consequences for other continents. Titled The Loved One (the Springbok) and Grandeur which does not destroy Romance (the Greater Kudu) respectively, they provide a melancholy key to the other works. They remind us that it is our classically underpinned notion of possession that still bedevils the Eurocentric relationship with the natural world.
Zavros's work beautifully illustrates the futile, and yet very human, obsession with perfect representation as attempted insurance against mortality and the passing of time. The capture of images, rather like the hunting and stuffing of trophy animals, is intended to allow us eternal possession of the subject. The horse will age, injure and die, the clothes will wear and date, our own existence will come to an end but our hope is that somehow our representations of these things will last eternally. Of course, the life and the living that made these objects and animals beautiful will be gone, and it is this sadness that Zavros has captured so poignantly.