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Walton Ford

by Rachel Corbett

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Naturalist painter Walton Ford bustled around a party last night in the penthouse of the Mondrian Soho like a bald fireball. “Have you met Daphne?! Oh my god, you have to meet Daphne,” he said throwing one arm around a suited man and the other around a rather conservatively dressed Daphne Guinness, the brewery heiress and couture collector, who wore a little black dress, striped stockings, platform “gravity” heels and an updo with a fan of black combs sticking out of it like a peacock's tail feathers.

A few seconds later, Ford spun around to greet other guests -- his neighbor, an arugula farmer from Berkshire County, Mass., where Ford has his studio, or the three artists who arrived wearing hand-crocheted animal heads (also from the area), or Nir Hod, a fellow painter represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery, which was hosting the party on the occasion of Ford’s new exhibition of nine oversized watercolors, or a collector inquiring if any of the works at the show were still available, to which Ford replied, “Fuck if I know. Probably not, but there’s always the future.”

Ford is often called a modern-day Audubon, but his works aren’t exactly sober representations of ducks and pelicans either. For the artist’s current show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, titled “I Don't Like to Look at Him, Jack. It Makes Me Think of that Awful Day on the Island,” Nov. 3-Dec. 23, 2011, Ford painted three giant, 9x12 ft. paintings of King Kong and six smaller works of monkeys in various states of sexual arousal -- all in his signature 19th-century wildlife realist style.

“I’m not really interested in nature art that shows the puma in the swamp,” Ford said. Rather, it’s the relationship between humans and animals that he aims to capture. To him, King Kong, who viewers only meet once the beast falls in love with a human girl, “is the ultimate fable of that.”

The other six works in the show depict different species of monkeys across a continuous action -- each chasing, capturing or ripping the head off of a bird, and each in an increasing phase of male excitement. These were inspired, Ford said, by a story Audubon once told from his childhood about how he witnessed one of his monkeys kill his most beloved parrot. “That’s like the most Freudian thing I ever heard,” Ford said.

Of course, Ford’s content may stray from tradition, but his technique doesn’t. “There are lots of gimmicks out there,” said Guinness, who owns two of Ford’s works, at the party. “He can really paint.”

For the Kong paintings, Ford referred to film stills, screen grabs, stop-motion animation puppets and, perhaps most importantly, a prop from the original 1933 King Kong movie -- the giant, lumpy head that is operated with huge cranks, which open the monster’s mouth to make him roar. The resulting paintings, to scale with that puppet head, are “life-size studies of Kong in grief, a rage state and then in a place where he’s accepted his inability to have what he wants.”

It’s a narrative that Ford says is personal. He recently lost his father and got divorced from the woman he’s been with since high school. He has wanted to paint King Kong for 15 years, he said, but until now hadn’t fully experienced the anguish of being “unable to have what you really want, to have the thing you love.”

Nonetheless, he seemed in high spirits during last night's opening. The gallery was packed, with celebrity visitors like Padma Lakshmi, Salman Rushdie and Olivia Wilde cloistered in a roped-off back room. And all the paintings were sold, though the gallery would not reveal the prices (his auction record is north of $1 million).

So, if Walton gets too lonely back in Great Barrington, it appears he has several dozen city friends he can call on to visit. Guinness, for one, said she can’t wait to get back to nature at the Ford compound. “I love going there,” she said. “I get to swim in the river!”

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email