Natural history superrealism overlaid with Surrealism? Have I finally found the perfect blend of Audubon, Bruegel, and The Museum of Jurassic Technology? In his watercolors Walton Ford personifies the animal kingdom in a large-scale, highly detailed, critical observation seen through the mirror of humanity. In his bizarrely colorful paintings of bird, beast and fowl, Mr. Ford communicates his views on society as it is and has been.
Born in Larchmont, New York, in 1960, Walton Ford is a 1982 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He is the recipient of several national awards and honors and now lives in the mountains of The Berkshires in Massachusetts
Ford drew his early inspiration from the work of nineteenth-century artist and naturalist John James Audubon—particularly his prodigious Birds of America series–as well as from visits to the American Museum of Natural History. Other influences include J.J. Grandville and Sir John Tenniel, the French artists whose caricatures of part-human, part-animal subjects satirized nineteenth-century French and British society; Edward Lear, an artist and writer known for his nonsensical poetry and limericks; George Catlin, a self-taught painter of Native Americans; and Francisco Goya, the Spanish artist working at the turn of the nineteenth-century. But true stories are the underpinnings of all of Mr. Ford’s work, which he once called “fake natural-history art.”
“I’m looking at this stuff all the time,” waving in the direction of a pile of moldy illustrated books on hunting and trapping while being interviewed by Leah Ollman of the Times (1999). “I get all my inspiration from things I read or see. There are very few times that an image pops out at me from some inner recess of my soul or that kind of stuff…
…Anyone walking in the countryside would have seen this 100 times,” Mr. Ford said, brandishing an 1887 copy of “Camp Life in the Woods and the Tricks of Trapping,” by W. Hamilton Gibson. “This is a lost world. I can’t even imagine a place where there’d be deadfalls in the woods everywhere and snares and an abundance of wildlife constantly being trapped. There’d be big nets strung from trees, barrels full of birds going to market – just enormous quantities of flesh on the hoof and in the air. It’s a piece of American history I don’t remember being taught in school.”
Several of the paintings are quite specific in their references. The one seen here, I was pleased to see in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof “BESTIARIUM” exhibition in April of 2010. It responds to Microsoft chief Bill Gates’ visit to India in 1997, when Ford and his family were spending an extended time there. It shows “Baba B.G.” as a North American kingfisher holding court to eight other brilliantly plumed birds sitting lower down on the same branch. A large fish, skewered by the branch where it meets the trunk, hangs nearby, spilling smaller fish from its slit gut. Some of those tumbling from its belly are shown in the process of eating even smaller fish. Such is the law of economic imperialism.
In keeping with Audubon’s practice, Ford often identifies each of the creatures he depicts through numbered captions, and in the same deliberately old-fashioned script, he pencils in “field notes”–quotes and clippings that help forge the metaphoric link.
In “Na raamro,” the starlings beleaguer a Himalayan bearded vulture by pecking on its wing and teetering on its head. Next to the work’s title, Ford has written in a short glossary of stereotypical tourist phrases steeped in cultural condescension, such as “The food is cold,” “Where is the porter?” and “I have diarrhea.”
Like a finely tuned system of counterweights, the paintings balance between clever self-consciousness and unencumbered sensual reverie. They are clearly, solidly grounded in history, irony and cultural critique, but, as often is the case, it is beauty that catches the eye and makes them fly.