Imagine a world where a gigantic viper swallows hundreds of birds at once, a baboon drunk with power fires a revolver in the air, a gorilla numbed with shock watches the world she knows disappear from her Zeppelin window as she moves to America. Welcome to the imagination of Walton Ford, a fantastical place that feels like a combination of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Claudius Aelianus’ On the Nature of Animals.
Ford’s maximalist, elaborate watercolor paintings are inspired by 18th and 19th century fables. He continues his research with studies he has drawn of animals frozen in action in their dioramas and in photographs from the American Museum of Natural History. Drawing his subjects in this way is deceiving because Ford is not interested in depicting the animals in their natural habitats in his final paintings. Though his paintings are filled with meticulously tiny brushstrokes–helping to articulate the thickness of hair, contours of feathers, or light reflected in eyes–all this detail is really there to enforce the developing melodramas in his head. Ford’s subjects range all over the animal kingdom, big and small, but also depict his subjects from their own point of view. Blurring the lines on what it means to be human, Ford gives his animals emotions from his own imagination, not narrated in the original historical texts.
When you look closely at Ford’s paintings, you realize “obsessive” seems to be a better word than simply “detailed” in describing the level of attention he gives to each of his pieces. Ford’s work is like imagining him as the black sheep protégé of John James Audubon, for whom he feels both contempt and admiration. Ford was vocal in his belief that Audubon was not that talented an artist, yet his own stylized paintings feel like they mimic parts of Audubon’s naturalist field sketches. Ford even seems to age the paintings to make them look like they are from that period in time. No matter his mentor, Ford continues to dazzle his viewers with his technical ability and twisted storytelling, as he does in his latest show, Watercolors, at the Paul Kasmin Gallery.
For this exhibition, Ford concentrates more on portraiture of animals than the larger story they come from. Seven of his works from 2012 through 2014 are displayed (five that are life-sized and two that are over-size). The show is like a patchwork of highlights from stories, shedding light on Ford’s warped sense of humor and complex fascination with captivity and control. In some of the work the message is clear in that Ford is relaying some uncomfortable story about 19th century colonialism, while others seem to be about an artist depicting something that appealed to him because it was within himself. Whether it was a greedy cold-blooded snake or a scared beast, could these paintings represent the hunger for power and fear that no artist likes to admit he is in possession of himself? Or maybe they represent a warning to us that in our minds, in our world, what divides “us” from “them” is actually nothing; perhaps our sense of superiority is an illusion. Whichever it is, Walton Ford’s work makes us question what we know about our place in Darwin’s evolutionary ladder… or maybe his creativity and use of context just confirms our rightful place in the social order.
Watercolors, Walton Ford, May 1 – Jun 21, 2014, Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue