New York

Walton Ford, On the Island, 2011, watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper mounted on aluminum panel, 9 x 12'.

Walton Ford, On the Island, 2011, watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper mounted on aluminum panel, 9 x 12'.

Walton Ford

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

Walton Ford, On the Island, 2011, watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper mounted on aluminum panel, 9 x 12'.

Walton Ford made his name in the late 1980s and early ’90s with work that had a political and ecological agenda. From early, folk-art-like paintings of nineteenth-century contacts between white settlers and Native Americans to the work for which he’s best known—large-scale, finely detailed watercolors of animals, derived in style from the prints of the ornithologist John James Audubon and similar naturalist art—Ford found ways to suggest realities hidden by his visual sources. Much as postcolonial scholars have read the novels of Jane Austen, for example, against the slave-trade economy of her time, Ford studied the historical and intellectual context of the seductive art forms he had mastered—not to mention the specific, disturbing behavior of Audubon in particular—to produce pictures that combined the appeal of his models with pointers toward circumstances that they depended on but obscured. A ruling idea in his work was humans’ inhumane treatment of the nonhuman, a rather simple message that his wide-ranging research and appetite for information allowed him to play through a rich series of variations.

Ford’s recent show included a six-piece narrative group in his familiar style, but its centerpiece was a departure, a trio of works about King Kong, the special-effects hero of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s much-loved giant-ape movie of 1933. Kong is Ford’s first film star. Painted and drawn on paper sheets mounted on aluminum, the pictures show only his head and shoulders, but since Ford likes to work life-size, matching the scale of the image to the animal depicted, these works are nine feet high—the largest single-panel paintings the artist has made. Other shifts include forsaking his usually crystalline color for the dusty black/gray palette of Kong’s skin and fur, and a rendering more cartoony than painstakingly empirical—or perhaps Ford is now painstakingly empirical in dealing with a cartoony subject. Something else that seemed new was an installation suggesting that the works were designed for the space they were to be shown in: Each neatly occupied one wall of a square room, so that, standing in the center, you felt surrounded by Kong, whose face looked down at you equidistantly from all directions within view. The associations between Ford’s triptychlike installation and the altarpiece, with its wings to either side of a central panel, added a sacrificial undertow to this experiential glut of gorillaness. In the images to either side, Kong looked first bewildered, or perhaps appalled, then deeply injured; in the central image he was simply gloriously angry. To the extent that the presentation echoed the altarpiece structure, rhyming Kong with Christ and his fate with the Crucifixion, each character’s tragedy fed a reading of the other’s, to both mutually reinforcing and cleverly contradictory effect—Christ isn’t meant to be an angry god, and even if he were, it’s hard to imagine him as angry as Kong.

When Ford was younger and less established, his politics and his position seemed in tune. The fact that his work now sells for very large sums is an endorsement that at the same time raises questions. The value of Ford’s pictures, the thing that separates them from the substantial quantity of well-drawn art in the Audubon mold, surely has to do with the degree to which they’re analytic, with how insistently, or whether, they ask us to rethink our relation to the natural world. But does their market stature suggest a public that’s obliviously comfortable looking at them? Or, not necessarily much better, a public that relishes them as the superattractive form of a message otherwise painful to think about? Ford sometimes seems to push against such issues; in the six works accompanying the Kong paintings, for example, a sexually aroused monkey violently murders a gorgeous parrot—a tough set of images to look at, let alone to hang on your wall. It is not Ford’s responsibility, in any case, to repair the world—or rather, it’s his to no greater extent than it is yours and mine.

David Frankel