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|Mimesis for the New Millennium
by Ilka Scobie
|Walton Ford, May 18-June 30, 2000, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Among Walton Ford's new watercolor paintings is his largest and most ambitious work to date, Nila (1999-2000). A life-size Indian elephant in full musth (as evidenced by the erect pachydermatous penis) is comprised by 22 separate, framed paintings pieced together into a massive grid, creating the very image of a glorious behemoth Babar striding across the Indian landscape. Ford, who has spent time in India, paints into this master work a guide to the 85 pressure points on the pachyderm's body, e.g., "18. Controls animal while tied to tree."
That thing that William Blake called "minute particulars" appears to be one of Ford's specialties. Each frame of the huge elephant is embellished with meticulously rendered birds, most of which are specimens unlikely to be hovering around the mysterious East. A snowy owl, soaring blue jay, swooping bats, starlings and a copulating parrot and shrike are among the exotic aviary. Still more captions rendered in antique penmanship include quotations from diverse sources such as George Harrison and Sir Richard Burton.
Despite his truncated ivory tusks, Nila has power, and combines naturalistic precision and poetry. Ford called the shot himself when he said, "It is the ultimate creature to paint."
Another work, titled Kavkazets, portrays a bison, its rough fur smoldering with the embers of a fire that has decimated the surrounding forest. An ominous trail of smoke rises from the left corner. The bottom border is embellished with ghostly sepia portraits. The text on this painting includes philosophical quotes and melodramatic dialogue apparently lifted from a Victorian romance.
The orangutan in Fallen Mias waves a 35-mm camera with a telescopic lens, as a blue-jeaned girl in the background clutches two baby monkeys, a third trailing behind her. Once again, a fire in the far off African skyline seems to ignite the flight of both human and creature.
The glorious cat mauling a faceless dandy in A Cabin Boy to Barbary is the now extinct Barbary Lion. The victim is Eugene Delacroix, for whom these lions were a favorite artistic subject. The formidable feline's voluptuous stretch counterpoints the almost regretful gaze of his eyes, an eloquent testament to Ford's quirky romanticism.
What these four paintings share is an enigmatic code, replete with political and social narrative. Astute viewers can interpret the cryptic metaphors, or simply enjoy the opulent draftsmanship.
From the time of cave painting's Paleolithic iconography, humans have attempted to portray nature. Given the current plethora of conceptual work flooding the art world, there is something heroic about Ford's precise and researched interpretations.
Fact and detail give a psychedelic edge to his highly modeled, anatomical, somewhat 19th-century analysis of exotic fauna. These paintings, with their faux antiqued appearance, seem supremely modern. With a naturalist's dispassionate view and a master's sure hand, Walton Ford has created vibrantly original and magnificent work.
ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.