Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tigers of Wrath, Horses of Instruction: Walton Ford is My Diety, Dammit

"Many of them have vanished in the last couple of centuries... and many other populations, subspecies, and whole species are in jeopardy. Because of their charisma, their handsome scariness and thrill value - they'll probably long remain popular as zoo attractions. But it won't be the same. When they're lost from the wild, they're lost in the deepest sense."
When I first saw Walton Ford's paintings, I loved them. But, I'm just talking about reproductions of his paintings - in magazine articles, or illustrations on book covers. The first time I saw his paintings in person was at his 2006 Brooklyn Museum show. I've seen modern paintings that I've loved, that brought me to my knees, that made my insides melt. But I'd never seen work by a modern painter whose technique was that rigorous, who demonstrated cliff-diving levels of bravery, and who was so intellectually interesting. I know it's not all about me, but I really felt as if he had painted them all just for my own personal pleasure.
"We stand no higher than third on the food chain of power and glory."

Let me explain. We'll begin with the basics. Walton Ford works on paper - he paints with watercolor, gouache and ink. As I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, when using wet media on paper it's about as easy to fix mistakes as when one is carving in marble. I always get a little rush of adrenaline when painting on paper. When looking at reproductions of Ford's paintings in magazine's or books, one thinks of Audubon's work, and the watercolors of 18th century illustrators and naturalists. One thinks of works that are small. Even when one sees measurements below the reproductions like 60"x 40", 59"x 119 1/2", and 144"x 216", it doesn't quite register how large these paintings are until one walks into a gallery and sees them covering a wall each. And they are on paper. Painted in media that will brook no error. That alone is awe inspiring.
"Lions and tigers may be big and fearsome, but leopards are stealthy."

As you can pretty much tell, Walton Ford paints animals, a pursuit that was held in deep disrepute until Mr. Ford came on the scene. I've also talked elsewhere abut how representational painting got very little love of any sort for most of the 20th century, about how people who liked to paint people or animals or ships or parrots most often wouldn't wind up in the Fine Art departments of one's school, but in the Illustration one. But things are changing. Walton Ford is nine years older than me, and from what I've read was a RISD legend: obsessive, iconoclastic, brilliant.

"Life is hard, life is good, life is enriched by complications - he seems to feel - so it should be. A forest without bears is empty."
But Walton Ford isn't a naturalist or just a painter of interesting (or made up) fish, birds and animals. He's an artist. His paintings have content. More than any other modern fine artist he has a sense of history, and most often history as it relates to colonialism and the natural world. As with the paintings of the 18th century naturalists, there are writings in pencil, titles written or painted in large, old fashioned copperplate script, or in tiny annotations. One can spend all day with his works and still find more and more in them. He has whole series of paintings of apes seemingly based on some of the more disreputable aspects of who Ford calls "Dirty Dick Burton". He means, of course, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (who has nothing to do with the actor), the Anglo-Irish soldier, writer, linguist, poet, hypnotist, explorer and translator. If you don't know who Burton was, you should. He translated the first complete English language Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra, he spoke dozens of languages, was the first Westerner to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he trained to be a Dervish (and likely converted to Sufism), he traveled throughout Africa in an attempt to find the source of the Nile - at one point for over 100 miles with a spear through his face. It has also been conjectured that Bram Stoker used him (at least partially) as a model for Dracula. He was also complicated, racist by modern sensibilities (but pretty shockingly broadminded in some ways by any era's standards), and reactionary. This is a tangent, but it's the sort of tangent that is inspired by the always interesting Mr. Ford. Knowledgeable without being didactic, and never charmless.
"The universe is a very big place, but as far as we know it's mainly empty, boring and cold. If we exterminate the last magnificently scary beasts on planet Earth,, as we seem bent upon doing, then no matter where we go for the rest of our history as a species - for the rest of time - we may never encounter any others. The only thing more dreadful than arriving on planet LV-426 and finding a nest of aliens, I suspect, would be to arrive there, and on the next unexplored planet, and on the next after that, and find nothing."
I don't mean to get all doomy. All the quotations in this post are from David Quammen's book, Monster of God: the Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, the cover of which is graced by a Walton Ford painting. Both Quammen's wonderful book and Ford's extraordinary work make one look at the world and the creatures in it, and our place as a species among them. Not in an alarmist way, but perhaps in a way that enables us to see history as a little wider and longer than one commonly does, even in these post-Darwinian times. In some ways we're all monsters and all saints and all unthinking beasts; monkeys, birds, tigers, and humans all. But I do know that the one great gift we have as a species is to reflect upon the world around us and make objects that enable our fellow homo sapiens to see the world as we do. This is not something panthera parda or leo can do, or ursus arctos, or papio anubis. Just us.

All pictures are by Walton Ford. If you have lots and lots of dough, his work may be purchased through the Paul Kamsin Gallery.

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