by Walton Ford
Walton Ford’s images almost look like they could be be plates from a nineteenth century naturalist’s publication — almost, that is, except for the starling doling out chocolates from a bad of Hershey’s kisses. And except for the sex, the violence, and the simians holding the skull of homo sapiens.
Which is to say Ford takes the expectations of the genre and turns them upside down and inside out; he uses the stained-to-age paper, lavish details, and key-feature-displayed poses of the animals to reveal the not-natural about our world. Audubon is clearly an influence, both in the style of the work, and the stories Ford tells. Audubon, though his name is linked with environmental good today, also had a darker side, and shot many more birds than he illustrated. One painting is taken from an incident in Audubon’s childhood: when he was a small boy, a monkey strangled his beloved pet parrot. In Sensations of an Infant Heart the monkey looks out at the viewer, unsettlingly meeting one’s eye even as his hands close around the parrot’s neck.
Unsettlingly is an apt word for Ford’s paintings. In A Cabin Boy to Barbary, a lion has knocked the boy away from his sketch books and pinned him to the ground. Eothen shows a peacock with starlings riding his back and trailing a burning tail. A big cats sinks his teeth in the neck of a sacred ibis as a starling looks on in Coup. Funk Island portrays great auks marching to their doom.
The paintings are also beautiful, with the vibrant colors of exotic bird feathers, the rippling muscles of a tiger (used, actually, as the cover image for David Quammen’s Monster of God), and the pinks of sunset skies in the background.
There is also the unexpected, with the birdcage of the head of an enormous snake in Atma, a man lugging a load of beer in the background of Kathmandu Guest House, the starlings with measuring tape in Dialogue, and the aforementioned bag of Hershey’s kisses. Some of these touches are frustrating, because I know there is more to available to the eye than I can make out in these prints. The originals are enormous works — many are five and a half feet by nine and a half feet — and while the color, style, and many of the details reduce well, the legends Ford has created for these works do not. In some cases this means there are paragraphs of spidery, antique-looking, and illegibly small writing. In these cases, only the main ideas come across, as in The Starling, where the starling is a frighteningly giant bird, fed by smaller more beautiful birds. Starlings are an invasive species, colonizers of the avian world, and it doesn’t take too long to figure out they are the “bad guys” in Ford’s paintings.
This book (taken from Blake’s line, “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”) also includes an essay by a friend of Ford’s, Steven Katz, and an interview with Ford by Dodie Kazanjian. I found the interview much more interesting than the essay. Ford talks about his work like he is real person, with real interests and ideas. By that I mean he doesn’t come off sounding like an artiste intent on spewing profundities, but like an interesting guy.
I would strongly recommend this book to: people who appreciate non-cutesy animals in art (animals being animals, that is), natural history buffs, people who think serious paintings are all done in oils, people who believe or need to be convinced that conceptual art can be beautiful, and graduate students badly in need of a new perspective on post-colonial theory, God help them.
This is the first book of Ford’s work; I hope there will be other collections, and I hope I will have the opportunity to stand in front of his paintings and be in awe in person.