Walton Ford, Watercolors
Paul Kasmin Gallery | May 1 - June 21, 2014
By ADRIAN COLEMAN, JUN 2014
Walton Ford, the Dr. Doolittle of the art world, returned to the Paul Kasmin Gallery with his growing menagerie of animal paintings. Ford is not new to the scene, but his art remains a wondrously arcane visitor in the land of installation and post-studio practice. It is as if a cargo bound for the Natural History Museum, or rather a museum conceived by Wes Anderson, has somehow washed up in Chelsea.
Ford’s watercolors span the life-like scale of taxidermic dioramas, and they possess an antique, zoological aesthetic. Ford has been endlessly equated with John James Audobon. His work, like the naturalist’s, is a rigorous document of anatomy. In a painting of an enormous snake and an eclectic swarm of birds, each bird is differentiated by rich cadmium patterns, like a scout’s identification booklet. On the snake, the precision with which the elastic geometry of scales distorts and glimmers across the throat is captivating, likely beyond Audobon’s facility.
The more critical distinction is that Ford asserts his animals as mythological rather than scientific specimens. The snake, from a Roman account of ancient Turkey, is a sixty-foot basilisk swallowing the birds whole. Other paintings concern a gorilla on a Zeppelin to America and a mandrill luxuriating in a medieval hall. The scenes are apparently derived from actual anecdotes, but the anthropomorphic and often absurd depictions suggest the influence of memory, imagination, and symbolism. Ford’s paintings are not so much animal portraits as an examination of animal portrayal, how the representation of a foreign species is a loaded cultural act.
Ford’s study of the prejudiced gaze aligns him with the painter John Currin, his well-known contemporary who recasts the classical nude in pornographic terms. Both engage a historical style with uncommon, figurative panache. Their appropriative concepts are postmodern but expressed in the techniques of old masters or at least master forgers. There is something corrupting about their work, not that their subjects are so debased by today’s standards but that they lend suspicion to the uprightness of entire artistic canons. Ford and Currin accentuate a type of unsavory looking. The eroticized women and exoticized animals are objects of male and Western fantasy. Currin’s women are as much souvenir hunting trophies as Ford’s animals are fetishized projections.
Ford’s work is not simply indebted to a history of image-making but to colonial culture in general, particularly a narrative tradition in which he inserts himself without waiting in line. Annotated in script, Ford’s paintings appear as enlarged entries of a dusty logbook. Indeed, Ford’s paintings are not just imagined natural histories but the survey of an imagined traveler. Who is the painter? Not Walton Ford in the 21st century, the work implies, as the edges of the manila sheets have browned, and the paintings are dated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the adopted persona is familiar. He trained in India with Dr. Watson, attended the Reform Club with Fogg, solved a few Agatha Christie mysteries, and once safaried with Hemingway. Ford’s artwork is a kind of genre fiction. The way a crime novelist understands the conventions of detective stories, Ford operates with a set of expectations - a palette balanced on khaki rather than white, a technique more reliant on line than value, a format that frames the animals as spectacles.
At times, Ford’s borrowed toolbox leads to a tension within the paintings. Is the art in the image or the impression that it conveys of its imagined creator? For instance, each painting is a feast of texture - the coarse knit of an upholstered seat, the tendrils of smoke drifting from the mandrill's nose, the leathery wrinkles of the gorilla’s face. Sometimes, however, the texture is overwrought. For fur, Ford articulates individual whiskers by the thousands. Other great animal painters, such as Stubbs (horses) or Freud (dogs), achieve a luster of fleece with far fewer strokes. Ford, in fact, is a skilled approximator. At an arm’s distance, many of his intricate details - the grain of masonry walls and background vegetation - appear surprisingly loose. Yet Ford relinquishes this approach when painting animals. Each meticulous hair is not so much a description of the animal as a characterization of the alter ego: painstaking, deliberate, likely to confuse his exacting nature with superior perception.
The most interesting moments in Ford’s new work appear where he deviates from the assumed voice. Some commentators have noted how a few paintings include hand-written captions from the animals’ point of view. Even more dramatic is Ford’s development of psychological interiors. In the first room, Ford’s compositions are like his oeuvre so far: creatures set between a vast landscape and the cream expanse of blank space above. In the second room, Ford situates his animals within human environments. In a painting of a drunken baboon hoisting a bottle and a revolver, the walls of an alleyway recede with an improbably claustrophobic perspective. The hall of the smoking mandrill also has an exaggerated, tunnel-like effect, as if the architecture is contracting around the mandrill’s head. In the Zeppelin painting, the boundary between wilderness and civilization softens. An ocean liner dominates the seascape beyond the window. The cabin is decorated with vine and branch motifs. The gorilla stares away from the window and the viewer. Ford seems to have reduced his conceptual scale from the epic panorama to the deeply personal. These are spaces of alienation, and what is striking is that the enclosures, rather than the animals’ placement within them, seem most unsettling. Ford often dramatizes violence scenarios, as if to address the inherent deadliness of taxidermy and natural history illustration. In these last paintings, however, the cruelty is not a showcased activity. It is in the making the art, the way the composition confines the animals. Ford has manipulated his standard formula, but this is his most powerful evocation of an exploitative attitude. The action of painting itself is a manner of refined and sumptuous oppression.
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Adrian Coleman is a painter and architect living in New York. His work has appeared, among other places, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.