New York

Walton Ford

Walton Ford’s paintings belie a jewellike presence with a postcolonial politics. Based on nineteenth-century American styles both naive and careful, they seem as if they could have been made back then, as though Ford were looking through those painters’ eyes; yet they have explored scenes that their styles’ originators might well have seen, indeed sometimes must have seen, but did not register as subjects for art. Addressing the ornithological painter John James Audubon, for example, Ford approached him not only as an artist but as a historical figure, and showed what the naturalist’s images meant in terms of wildlife carnage. Ford placed this aspect of Audubon, obvious once you’ve thought of it (those birds had to be stilled for him to paint them), into a larger and damning picture of white presence in the Americas, our ancestors’ attitude to the land and to what they found there.

Ford recently moved from viewing his own country with a self-consciously distanced eye to being unambiguously an onlooker in someone else’s. Traveling with his family to India for six months, he found that he “had never been to a more alien place.” And, trying to deal with this experience in his work, who should he fall back on but Audubon, that old barbarian (at least as Ford has shown him)? The oils and watercolors of birds that resulted look more like Audubon’s own work than most of Ford’s previous images, yet are not-so-subtly different. For one thing, they are set in India, and make room for all kinds of foreignness in both background and foreground. For another, the birds themselves are foreign—or, rather, the main protagonists usually are, though the images generally include some combination of Eastern and Western avifauna. The strained, even contorted postures, on the other hand, could be straight out of Audubon—which only shows how an artist like Ford can make us reinterpret images we might once have thought natural-looking or actually graceful.

I recognize starlings and kingfishers, and understand that the Indian examples include hornbills and bustards. As representatives of East and West, these birds are often in combat or at least in tension. Around and behind them, vignettelike scenes extend this cultural conflict, as when a turbaned acolyte prevents a missionary from smashing a lingam. Sometimes, though, the point is more about the way cultures coexist, intermingle, and accommodate each other (Indian people, for example, having as much of an appetite for Heineken as Americans do). Scratched into the paint in the oils, quotations from different sources—nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts, twentieth-century Lonely Planet guide-books, the AP—reinforce the viewer’s sense of the alternating attraction and repulsion between cultures.

Ford’s earlier work conveyed a powerful sense that history was being unearthed and put on view in terms that would have been familiar to the people who actually lived it, yet who would not or could not represent it this way themselves. Like many artists who have made a vocabulary their own, he must now either abandon that vocabulary or turn it to the digestion of new material—as he does in this body of work, addressing his own experience as a traveler, or what he calls an “ugly American.” If the results are less surprising than the earlier paintings, they are no less thoughtful and perhaps more personal—not a bad dimension for political art, which can come across pat and preachy unless its morals are moored in some complex state of feeling. Meanwhile the paintings themselves, and particularly the watercolors, are if anything more accomplished than before, and as good-looking as you could wish.

David Frankel