New York

Walton Ford

Nicole Klagsbrun

If his own outraged historical innocence is what reopens the vista of early American painting for Walton Ford, it neither quite compensates for the glum maladroitness of that genre, nor for the tendency of lost innocence to avenge itself with caricatures of corruption. A comparable logic haunts Komar & Melamid’s revision of Soviet Realism. Ford, in this sense, is their American counterpart, even as, through his struggle to dissolve the limits of this approach in his recent work, he reveals a relatively precocious awareness of them.

In Martha, 1993, a mural-sized, oil-on-wood triptych, crowds of hunters, scattered carefully over a crepuscular landscape, fire upward into vast, dark flocks of birds that disappear into the upper left-hand corner. The title (as ornithologists and naturalists will immediately recognize) alludes to the name given the last American passenger pigeon. What distinguishes this work from others like it in Ford’s oeuvre is that the ethical complex motivating it—in this case, a prim environmentalism—is overshadowed by the seductive grandeur and gloom of the work. The triptych’s mock-heroic scale goes beyond the essentially self-reflexive, academic nature of Ford’s project to make palpable America’s abiding penchant for slaughter on a mass scale—its death wish.

Unfortunately, the academicism transcended (or apotheosized) in Martha comes home to roost in Procrustes in Africa, 1993, three crates that recall museum dioramas and any number of demystifications of natural history, from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, 1970, to Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions, 1989. Collaged with photos and other documentation of mountain gorillas captured for study, these pieces merely materialize a critique of ideology that derives from, and is more forcefully enacted in, purely textual form.

Ford extends his exploration of naturalist representation in the large-scale watercolor False Face/Health Advisory, 1992–93. Between taxonomically arranged rows of fish deemed toxic by New York State officials float Iroquois “false face” masks—images of diseases used, like vaccinating icons, to ward them off. But lurking behind the juxtaposition of these modes, and making it meaningful, is yet another (meta)toxin: the cliché of American Indians living on as Nature’s vengeful spirits amidst industrialism—a staple Romantic trope in the regime of corporate image-managers, who thus preempt a ghostly reproach that might otherwise pose a radical threat to the status quo.

So despite, though ultimately by virtue of, its very range of formal strategies, “Procrustean Beds” inadvertently recasts the myth that informs its title by illustrating that history—even when stretched or amputated—does not accord with received ideas. Let’s hope, given his versatility and overall nobility of impulse, that the same innocence and ambition—the Americanness, in short—blinding Ford to the deadly double-edge of the exhibition’s conception will somehow guide him back to more personally felt histories.

Thad Ziolkowski