New York

Walton Ford

Walton Ford regularly offers a web of images and text exhuming whole realms of history: the history of natural science and zoology; exploration (and its attendant exploitation) and colonization; the history of images, artistic and otherwise; even the history of history. Remarkably, he accomplishes this feat in watercolor, one of the more lightweight mediums in the lexicon of modern and contemporary painting.

This show featured eight of Ford’s medium-size and large paintings that at first seem to mimic Audubon prints and their ancestors, which hark back to scientific illustrations and plein air topographical drawings of landscapes and seaports. The Starling, 2002, for instance, features a huge, carefully rendered bird perched on a branch. Surrounding the starling are other birds, smaller in scale, which bear prey in their beaks. Under the entire group, Ford painted in careful script the Latin name for each bird (e.g., Sturnus vulgaris for the starling). The strange underpinnings of these works became clear as one walked through the gallery. Dirty Dick Burton’s Aide de Camp, 2002, depicts a primate—the common langoor (Presbytis entellus)—standing in an abandoned nineteenth-century-style camp (somewhere in the “Orient”) clutching a hookah, the “Dick” Burton referenced actually Sir Richard Burton, a “gentleman-naturalist” who once invited forty monkeys to his dinner table so he could learn their language. Space Monkey, 2001, verges on the bestial-pornographic: A female monkey with bright pink genitalia appears mounting her mate’s waiting erection, while a caption overhead reads PATTI SMITH GROUP—EASTER—TRACK #2. As in all his works, Ford references the world of naturalism (populated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with rich white men who scoured the globe for “specimens”). But he also pulls out a gritty Patti Smith quote in which she is accosted by a “Space Monkey UFO” and removed from her environment—a little like the animals relocated from their jungles to the Museum of Natural History, one of Ford’s favorite haunts. More heavyhanded was Madagascar, 2002, a rendering of an elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus) bound with rope being led down a sand dune toward a “tall” ship anchored in a shallow harbor. Tiny images of people tied together being led toward the ship bolster the idea of conquest, along with a quote by Etienne de Flacourt, French governor of Madagascar (he was installed by the French East India Company in 1648), describing his “objective” impressions.

Ford’s work has more than a whiff of the eccentric. Working in the non-“serious” medium of the Sunday painter, Ford nevertheless tries to reinsert his paintings into history. Like a forger, he gets the look of the past by “aging” his work, using watercolors to create yellowing edges and water spots. But he doesn’t try to crawl back in time. Unlike McDermott & McGough, who attempt to re-create the past, Ford collapses the past into the present, offering images that are both new and old—summoning an Audubon stiffness while consciously tweaking that convention—and mining subjects pertinent to contemporary environmentalism and geopolitics. Ford’s penchant for animals and the nature/ culture nexus also calls to mind artists covering similar territory: Ann Craven, Ashley Bickerton, Mark Dion, and Alexis Rockman. Most of these, however, use animals as stand-ins for humans. The same might be said of Ford—but why make the distinction between nature and culture? Ford splendidly shows how the two histories are entwined and how the treatment of animals and the extinction of various species serves as an analog—and possibly warning—for our own.

Martha Schwendener