It's the day after Walton Ford's birthday, and 20 days until the opening of his show at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York (an exhibition that is now on view, May 20-July 2, 2005). The two of us are in his second floor studio, which is located in a house at the end of a dirt road in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains. It's organized chaos -- plastic toy animals meticulously arranged by his two young daughters, piles of esoteric 19th-century books, punk magazines, copies of National Geographic and, of course, paintings on easels, awaiting completion.
Standing in front of his painting-in-process, Bird Lime, Ford says, "I just put color on last night. I have 20 days and 20 nights, and I'm not going to sleep. I'll work right up until this opening."
The unfinished painting features the now-extinct Carolina parakeet. Records show that the sight of these green-and-orange birds in the snow dazzled early settlers. Farmers would wire an owl to a tree, and capture the parakeets when they swooped in to attack. "It's a surreal image of what a young farm boy would have seen in the 19th century," Walton explains.
Next, Ford shows me Jack on His Deathbed, a portrait of a pet monkey that belonged to Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples at the end of the 18th century. Hamilton indulged his pet almost to the point of debauchery, and kept records of the creature's homoerotic antics. In the painting's background, Vesuvius is erupting (an event that actually occurred at the time of the monkey's death). Classical literary motifs, such as a snuffed-out candle, embellish the scene.
It's pure Walton Ford -- bravado artistry and brash allegory.
We move onto what will be the show's centerpiece, a dynamic 16-foot-wide triptych depicting a bison surrounded by white wolves. It is titled Le Jardin. "The bison is life-sized, six feet at shoulder," Ford notes. "It's based on an image by George Caitlin, who drew a scene of a buffalo being ripped apart by wolves on the plains. I wanted to take a portrayal of savagery -- uniquely American savagery -- and set it in a very fussy English garden."
The idea, Ford said, was to present contrasting notions of nature -- untamed and brutal as in early American myth, and attenuated and perfected as in French formal gardens. "It almost seemed to have political resonance, without being very specific," Ford said.
I mention the current exhibition of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum, and Ford tells me that he is having a show there in October 2006. The artist is excited by the thought of the eclectic crowd that the museum attracts. "I want to broaden my audience," he tells me. "I don't want to be talking only to the art world."
But Ford's art-world bona fides are very much in evidence in this studio. He displays a hand-made gun was been given by the artist Tom Sachs. "Look at this laser," he says, showing off the object. "It's designed for assassination. This is where you put the rounds. It actually works -- it's frightening." Sachs is well known for objects that flirt with danger, in this case a weapon made from everyday items that he purchased at a hardware store. Ford's gun, however, has no firing pin. "It was part of a trade," Ford says. "He won't give me the pin until I finish the piece I'm making for him."
Another treasure in the studio is a bunch of photos from the American Museum of Natural History, one of Ford's favorite haunts. "The curators were cleaning out the drawers and knew I would use them," he says. Ford indicates one of the photos. "Look at this dead gorilla -- they skinned him. These are all expedition pictures. It's 1927. This guy is Karl Akeley, the museum's diorama designer. . . . An amazing genius, actually, but he's a brutal hunter. That's him with the head."
Moving on, we come to Delirium, an impressive painting of a Golden Eagle launching itself into flight, despite the fact that its leg is caught in a steel foot-hold trap. "Delirium represents an episode of incredible brutality," Ford says. Audubon wrote that the eagle had been caught in a trap laid by a farmer, but was so powerful that it had been able to drag the trap for more than a mile. Ford notes, "Golden eagles are a worldwide species, but when Audubon went to paint one, he bought a living one from a farmer. He was trying to figure out how to kill it."
Ford reads to me at length from Audubon's account of his attempt to kill the eagle, first by suffocating it with smoke, and finally by thrusting a long pointed piece of steel through its heart. The key to understanding the imagery of Ford's painting Delirium is the passage where Audubon writes of his experience attempting to paint the vanquished animal's body. "I sat up nearly the whole night to outline him," Audubon wrote. "I worked so constantly at the drawing it nearly cost me my life. I was suddenly seized with a spasmodic affection which much alarmed my family. The picture of the eagle took me 14 days. I never labored so incessantly.'"
Ford's painting captures the drama. "The painting is like an image of an Italian saint -- the bird is soaring up, smoke is pouring from his mouth like an airplane, the pin is thrust through and the blood is coming out, the trap is on his foot and he's soaring up. It's an image of resurrection. He comes with all his martyrdom -- it's the bird's dream of escape."
Ford notes the mutual delirium of the animal and the artist. Included in the painting is a small figure in the snow that represents Audubon in his illness.
The soul-stirring moment is a recurrent theme of Ford's new work, whether it's the cinematic images of the death of a much-loved pet monkey and an eagle catapulting to freedom or Ford's rendering of Leonardo's famous report of having a bird sweep a feathered tail into his mouth as a baby. Drama and beauty infuse Ford's unerring representational exactitude. Reverence tempers provocation.
I ask if he owns any works by Audubon. "Actually, I can make my own," Ford responds. "That was my first impulse when I was a little kid and I loved these pictures so much -- I wanted them. So I started trying to make them when I was quite young."
Our conversation turns to more recent history, as Ford reflects on the vicissitudes of his career as a realist painter (however literary his compositions might also be). Until ten years ago or so, Ford notes, painting like his was out of vogue; the 1980s model for figuration was the work of David Salle or Eric Fischl -- "a lot of brushwork and carelessness and splatter." Today, the advent of painters like John Currin has sharpened the taste for more careful, accurate renderings.
We end the interview by walking through the small town in which Ford's studio is situated, taking a look at his favorite bookstore and going to a gourmet cheese store that has an adjoining cafe. Ford tells me he is looking forward to June, when he will embark on a 100-mile hike north on the Appalachian trail with Jeffery Eugenides, who will document the journey for a men's magazine.
Ford notes that he has several writer friends, and says that he gets many of his ideas for paintings from his reading. "I love my work," Ford says. "I work all the time." On that note, he excuses himself to leave. "And now," he says, "I have to think about making another painting."