Massive five-foot by twelve-foot watercolors of lions would at first seem to represent the artist himself in his art world triumphs. These are monumental depictions of the king of beasts. Do they reflect the way Walton Ford himself has risen to the upper echelons of the art world become something of a lion among painters? His paintings reputedly sell for more than two million dollars a pop. Knowing he commands such huge prices inevitably influences the way a viewer sees the show. Questions arise as to what sets this man apart and marks him as a primary contributor to contemporary culture with work bound for major museums.
The most obvious thing that sets him apart, is scale. Who does watercolors of this size? They are beautiful and effortless looking, though it is hard to imagine a more unforgiving medium in which to do a big painting. An artist just can’t undo anything in a watercolor and ink rendering. Given this, Ford’s rock-solid control of values and colors must reflect an uncanny level of focus. Did any of his attempts not work out? Are there piles of giant twelve-foot sheets of paper crumpled up and pushed to the side in his studio space? If not, then he is truly virtuosic.
Technical chops aside; another thing that distinguishes Ford is his single-minded pursuit of his place in the art world. He started working in the 1980’s, an era when this type of image was often laughed at. It is hard to convey the harshly exclusive climate of the New York art scene at that time. It was absolutely dominated by abstract and conceptual things. If someone had wanted to make a list of types of artwork most likely to receive a sneer it could truly have been: 1) things that look like illustration, 2) depictions of animals, 3) watercolors. Yet this is where Ford was determined to have his work shown. He did not waver. Now this kind of imagery has become widespread and he is seen as a pioneer.
A final thing that sets Ford apart is his devotion to a very specific kind of story. He searches for historical instances where there has been some kind of conflict between humanity and nature. The type of interaction he is drawn to is hard to put a finger on, yet all his works are clearly connected with some thread of poetic meaning. In general the guiding impulse has something to do with the often painful ways animals become tangled up in the psychology of humans. Ford’s lions in this show are no exception.
Walton Ford “Barbary”
Paul Kasmin Gallery
509 West 27th Street, NY, NY
On view through December 22, 2018
Leipzig 20 Oktober 1913, 2018 watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 60 1/8 x 119 1/4 inches, 152.7 x 302.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.
The creatures pictured are not just any big cats. They are Barbary lions, a subspecies that went extinct in the wild in the middle of last century. Like all of Ford’s studies of extinctions these animals were not destroyed by our modern industrial world. Their erasure was a little more complicated than that. It started about two thousand years ago when their ferocity came to be a regular entertainment in Roman coliseums. It is with bitter irony that their troubles continued through the centuries largely because these lions were regarded as majestic and terrifying symbols of the wild. What is on display at Kasmin Gallery is the way our predecessors sensationalized the Barbary Lion out of its place in the world.
Though it happened more than fifty years ago the loss can be felt vividly. The Barbary lion is the one that announces MGM productions. It was also the model for the heroic feline sculptures that stand in front of so many libraries and museums. This lion’s home territory was the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa. It is a bigger animal with a more robust mane than Sub-Saharan lions. This is why footage of lions in the wild is always vaguely disappointing. The currently available cats aren’t the same beasts that haunt the Western imagination.
One historical scene Ford reimagines is the last time a Barbary was photographed in its environs. In the painting, he includes some suggestions about what forces lead to the lion’s downfall. “La Dernière Image” (which translates as “the last image”) depicts the biplane of photographer Marcelin Flandrin flying high above his subject in 1925. Postcards rain from the aircraft revealing exoticized scenes of northern Africa. These include pictures meant to titillate the photographer’s European customers such as bare-chested women wearing beads and ornaments posing with decorative urns. Though Flandrin did provide some wonderful documents of African architecture he also paid the bills through this exploitative practice of Orientalism–Orientalism being the process of stirring up biases about the Middle East and Far East, fanning the flames of colonial superstitions and fantasies. Ford has called out the problems of Orientalism in interviews. He draws a line between the mindset that sees the foreign as a fantasyland and the troubles that befell the Barbary.
The four other paintings on view represent a variety of psychologically complex historical situations. A legendary animal from the Roman Coliseum crouches in fear and confusion. Two Bengal tigers ambush a lion held captive in the king’s menagerie at the Tower of London in 1830. Big cats roam free in the foggy streets of Leipzig Germany in 1913 after their circus carriage was smashed by a tramcar. The final painting in the show returns to the issue of Orientalism. It is a fictional scene: a bloody-muzzled beast stands over the paintbox of the artist Eugene Delacroix after having dined upon him. Delacroix was a great champion of Orientalism. His actual life story is that he visited northern Africa in 1832 painting subjects such as lions. For the rest of his days he drew from his African experience, making exotic scenes of sex, violence, and the ferocity of nature. Ford’s reimagining of the death of Delacroix is timely because Delacroix is having his first big US exhibition right now at the Metropolitan Museum, not far from Ford’s show. That exhibition is very popular but after seeing it myself I find that Ford’s accusations of Orientalism are on point. It is kind of entertaining to imagine Delacroix being eaten by a lion.
Yet Ford isn’t just down on Delacroix. He generally seems to have more sympathy with animals than with humans. Thomas Marks, in an article for Apollo Magazine quotes Ford as saying ‘I find myself making growling noises while I’m painting’. I suppose any artist might do this but if there is a struggle between humanity and nature it I think it is clear that Ford would like to be on the side that he inherently is not. His work can call to mind deeply troubling traits of our species. I find myself dwelling on the fact that we apparently eradicated all the other hominids that resembled us. The fossil record shows that humans had many sibling species at one point. A look in the mirror reveals the most likely reason why they disappeared from earth.
Humanity alone has the power to tell stories. One could say that Ford is calling attention to the dark side of that trait. Because we spread fictions we have a track record of eradicating other forms of consciousness not out of necessity but as a bi-product of our myths. While stories can be used to pass down knowledge they are also employed to spread fear and superstition. In the animal kingdom humanity alone has the power to demonize.
The style Ford uses in this group of paintings is somewhat ritualistic. It is a way of working that is born out of his obsession with the troubled relationship between animals and the human psyche. Rather than obsess about making the most photographically accurate image of his subject, he practices a method involving the internalization of the character of the animal he is focusing on. Ford started his career with a great admiration of early naturalist illustrators such as John James Audubon. Working before the advent of photography, these artists had to figure out how give each animal a sense of life even though the only way to representation them with any detail was to draw their corpse. The resulting style involves distortions and inventions as the artist renders the facts of the animal while also imagining it into an interesting pose and a lively graphic composition. Often the animal is pictured within a lyrical tableau of their native habitat. Ford mirrors this method by working from actual live animals at zoos, when possible. He also absorbs information from natural history collections. He does use photos, but only after extensive study and learning about his subject in other ways. He purposefully works against the idea that a mechanical image is the ultimate truth. In all of Ford’s work since the 1980’s you can see a calculated level of distortion of a type that quietly and emphatically states that he has reimagined the animal rather than copied it from some other image. This can be seen by pondering the poses of the lions in this show. It can also be seen in details such as his rendering of their fur. He accurately conveys a sense of the directions of hair growth on the face of the lion in a way that shows knowledge and experience. It is not just a record of visual phenomena. While this process leads to interesting detail and to a more intriguing composition it also seems to fill a mystical role. Learning about the animal in this way requires a more full comprehension of its nature, thus a deeper encounter with its spirit.
La Derniere Image, 2018 watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 60 x 119 1/2 inches, 152.4 x 303.5 cm. Photo by Matt Mitchell
Augury, 2018 watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 60 1/4 x 119 1/2 inches, 153 x 303.5 cm. Photo by Matt Mitchell
Detail, Leipzig 20 Oktober 1913, 2018. Photo by Matt Mitchell