On Walton Ford

A few years ago when the Brooklyn Museum had its big Walton Ford show, The Tigers of Wrath, I was simply gob-stopped. The big canvases, which are both homage to and critique of John James Audubon and Western ways of looking at, and killing, nature, were amazing, filling me with awe. The paintings are epic, gorgeous, angry, sly, historically freighted, and lusciously painterly all at once. For starters, the draftsmanship, that is, the actual representational skill, is extraordinary. Watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper are his usual media. Photography did much to kill representational painting, and plenty of visual artists today can’t draw worth a plug nickel, but Ford’s post-modernism is grounded in serious skill.

A birthday gift of the Taschen edition of Ford’s work is the (belated) context for these remarks.

Ford makes notes around the images, quotes from historic sources, and even paints on faux mold stains and foxing to make them look authentically archival. The stories these paintings tell are sometimes obscure, sometimes unbelievable, and often tragic. The Great Auks marched towards their extinction on Funk Island, with their own thick layer of fat fueling the fires. Sir Richard Burton actually did try to teach apes language, and called one of them his “wife” – and you wonder why the real Mrs. Burton burned The Perfumed Garden ms. in Trieste? Da Vinci did in fact claim the auspices of a red kite landing on his crib and tickling his mouth with its tail feathers when he was baby. Passenger pigeons once landed in such enormous numbers on tree branches that their weight brought the boughs down.

Ford’s early “American Flamingo” is his most direct repost to Audubon. It’s a wildly contorted bird that’s just be shot by tiny figures in the distance, able to do so much damage only because of technology. Audubon could have painted it, if he’d be more honest. Audubon’s merging of natural history, showmanship (he was the “American woodsman” in buckskin long before Disney found Dan’l Boone), business, and art, is a fascinating subject. His Birds of America project was enormous, in effort, cost, and scope. It was first published in Britain since no American printer had the wherewithal or nerve to try it; it was marketed to European royalty, as a kind of book version of the wunderkammer, natural history imperialism by proxy. For, in the double-elephant folio editions, the birds are life-scale. This necessitated some odd postures for the tall ones like the flamingo. For all his realism, he was a dramatist of the first order. Of course, “realism” and “realistic” are ever culturally defined terms.

Like all the early naturalists, Audubon killed his subjects. (As late as 1902, the President of the American Ornithologists’ Union said, “I do not protect birds. I kill them.”) Yet, one of the country’s pre-eminent conservation groups, the National Audubon Society, is named after him. The ironies of history are unbounded. That naming was bestowed by Brooklyn-born George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), who was tutored by Audubon’s widow Lucy (1787-1874) at the Audubon estate in upper Manhattan. Later Grinnell would become an influential editor of Forest & Stream, campaigning for national parks, respect for Native Americans, saving the bison, and protecting birds from the slaughter of the millenary trade (one of fashion’s many dark hours). Grinnell, who was also a sportsman hunter, thought the Audubon name would live on. He was right: Audubon is certainly one of the most recognized artists in America, and Birds of America probably one of the most popular combinations of art and natural history in the world. And, of course, the book is stunningly beautiful; in its double elephant folio version a piece for the ages.

Now, it bears remembering that Grinnell’s magazine catered to men of leisure who hunted, cf. big game hunter and preservationist Teddy Roosevelt. They wanted to be allowed to hunt at their leisure, like unindicted putschist Dick Cheney on the estates of the robber barons of our day, without bother from the little people who were “market hunters,” in other words, making a living from killing (the barons, needless to say, also made their living from killing), which introduces the specter of class into the mix. Of course, it was people like Roosevelt and Grinnell who got the national parks system going. As I say, the ironies of history…

You see, you may have thought this was a digression away from Walton Ford, but these are the things you think about when you look at his pictures. The world is out of wrack in his images, violence and bestiality reigns, and you can’t take your eyes off them, because they are documents of our time. (And I have purposely refused to reproduce any of them here, because they are spectacles for eyes unaided by digital miniaturization.)

“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” ~ William Blake

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