Walton Ford: Primal Instincts and Pop Culture

Walton Ford's reputation for enormous (specifically life-sized) watercolors of animals executed in the highly illustrative, realistic vein of ornithologist-artist John James Audubon precedes him. I have expectations when approaching a new Ford exhibition: the works will be large; they will be fully realized; and there will exist some disarray, some violence that offsets the animals' handsome portraiture. I've followed Ford's work since 2005 and have seen his deft folding of dissent beneath a naturalistic veil, like Le Jardin's rugged bison fighting off a pack of chicly groomed wolves on a manicured garden. Or his 2009 exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, his most distressing yet, which featured bizarre moments of animals in panic at the edge of human intervention. Ford focuses his exacting Audubon-style themes with pop culture in his latest exhibition at the gallery, I don't like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island. And, yeah, they're huge. - Brian Fee, Austin Contributor

Walton Ford | I don't like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island, partial installation view, 2011, © Walton Ford, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.

The exhibition's title hints at one subject: King Kong, the original misunderstood monster, a silver-screen antihero. Ford paints the mighty Kong to scale, meaning a series of three works easily his most monumental yet, measuring 9-by-12 feet per sheet. That is huge…but they only encapsulate Kong's great visage, filling each frame in varying stages of grief and fright, from teary-eyed dismay (I don't like to look at him, Jack) to nostril-dilated, teeth-baring rage (It makes me think of that awful day) to wounded defeat, his lips bloodied, translucent tears and snot running down his face (On the island). Stand up close and effortlessly lose yourself in fields of undulating fur. Note the contrast of Kong's wide, wan tongue against leathery, textured skin, like tractor-tire treads, and those bottomless eyes, conveying as much humanlike emotion as his super-sized expressions. Ford drew the separate works' titles from a quote by Fay Wray on the original '33 King Kong, reminding us her own feelings of a day she wishes she could forget, one that Kong loved so much. The trilogy covers the front gallery's three walls for an almost totally immersive experience, within Kong's grief as the unloved and unlovable.

Walton Ford | His Supremacy, 2011, watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper, 59 5/8" x 40 3/4", © Walton Ford, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Ford draws from a passage in Audubon's memoirs for a second suite of watercolor drawings in the second gallery, depicting the naturalist's childhood parrot's death at the hands of an adult monkey. As Audubon never mentioned the primate's specific species in his memoirs, Ford depicts it as mutable throughout six panels, "walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird" according to Audubon. Ford synthesizes an unseen human element here, with the mischievous monkey leering over the parrot like a child play-acting (The Man of the Woods) or snatching it from a nest (His Supremacy), foregrounded by psychedelically bright blooms. Ford adds an additional, perverse elaboration within the fourth panel, du Pain au Lait pour le Perroquet Mignonne, as the monkey grasps at both the entrapped bird and his own erect manhood in a mix of frenzy and sexual delight. This leads to the parrot's brutal decapitation as the monkey ejaculates and is summarily chained to a rock at the series' denouement. The vividly colorful parrot, the monkeys' variably textured coats, even the washed-out daytime sky's gradual dip into concluding stormy darkness (…Forever Afterward Chained) receive Ford's masterful, realistic treatment. His expert injection of Kong-sized pop imagery and his continued prowess at adapting and re-imaging Audubon's world means we'll probably never see "just" bird watercolors in Ford's future body of work.

Walton Ford | Installation view, 2011, © Walton Ford, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.


Walton Ford was born in Larchmont, NY and lives and works in Great Barrington, MA. His work is included in a number of collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. A survey of his work was organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 and traveled to the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas and the Norton Museum of Art in Florida in 2007. Ford's midcareer retrospective debuted at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum Fur Gegenwart in Berlin last year and traveled to the Albertina in Vienna and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. I don't like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island is his eighth solo exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, on view through December 23.

Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film and live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).

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