New York

Walton Ford

Bess Cutler Gallery

Walton Ford allegorizes the legacy of slavery and the racism of the American South in the flattened spaces and golden tones of 15th-century painting. If the Sienese masters attempted to represent the sacred and its permutations, Ford is only interested in the profane and its ambivalence, its pettiness, its evil. In a series of portraits entitled, “The Blood Remembers,” (all works 1989), ugliness attains a level of intensity that attests to the potency of this peculiar conceit. The faces of unhappy white people, painted in his characteristic neonaive style, are pinched with nastiness and thinly veiled violence. Tiny toadlike, demonic creatures emerge from their thin-lipped mouths. The perfectly coiffed women and suited men are all alarmingly pale: if the blood remembers, the blood is getting thin.

Ford explores the encounter of blacks and whites in the rural South with the same razor-sharp gaze that he previously trained upon the psychosexual meetings of adolescents. His allegories acquire a psychological density that makes them truly emblematic; he perfectly captures a look or a gesture of violence, desire, and nonrecognition.

In A Virginia Gentleman, an emaciated, shirtless, white overseer frozen in a posture of impotent rage points at two black workers raising a salmon-and-white tent on the grounds of a Southern plantation. His whole being seems desiccated and desperate. One of the black workers turns to look at the white man in confusion and disbelief. The heat is palpable, the tension thick, and small clouds of flies hover around each figure’s head.

Ironically, Ford has revived history painting by working through intensely personal issues. He’s from a Southern family that owned slaves and he depicts the domestic, against a background of rolling hills and uneasy race and class relations. In Progress in the Tidewater, the least dogmatic of Ford’s paintings, the artist captures the missed encounter between white and black. An elderly black man leaning against a giant blue Cadillac watches a passing turtle as a carload of gawking white youths approaches. Crammed into the car, they are anxious and fearful. The black man’s attitude is casual and relaxed, perhaps too relaxed. The gap between these people seems unbridgable.

In two other paintings, Fake and Bottle Tree, Ford focuses on the brutality of whites toward black recruits in the Southern Army camps. In these problematic representations the blacks are rarely angry; they seem most often gentle, confused and helplessly victimized. The whites on the other hand look like avatars of generations of hate and abuse. Although there certainly is a truth to this particular representation, it colludes too well with the idea we have that the only good black is a long-suffering victim and that the angry one is a dangerous madman. White America is afraid of the rage of its victims and Walton Ford’s paintings show us how this fear has consumed our souls.

Catherine Liu