Walton Ford at Paul Kasmin

Walton Ford shows an impressive new body of work at Paul Kasmin gallery from May 1 - June 21, 2014.

written by Nathalie Zwimpfer in New York

For Watercolors Ford continues his practice of painting animals in their rawest emotions. In his latest paintings we see half a dozen of owls fighting over a caught mouse, an angry tigress confused by thousands of glass balls, a giant snake that swallows a swarm of birds, a tied-up, biting, monstrous wolf, a pipe-smoking mandrill, a drinking monkey and a flying gorilla.

At first sight the seven large-scale watercolor paintings look like naturalist illustrations from the 19th century, painted during colonial excursions. However, the paintings have many more layers to them and move way beyond the purpose of illustration. They have narrative components and symbolic elements creating a dream-like presence with details full of dark humor. Ford’s paintings show uncanny scenes of violence, rich in disturbing melodrama. There is something odd about the depicted animals, too dramatic to be a scientific portrayal of the world’s fauna.

The paintings tell more about humans than animals. It is human history that is being referenced despite the pictured raw feral behavior of the beasts. Ford’s paintings deal with how we perceive the animal world and how we simply project our own experiences, history and expectations onto it. Therefore, the paintings hardly reference scientific facts but rather the human fascination for the unknown feral world. Ford himself claims that he wasn’t particularly interested in animals themselves but more in their representation.

He once stated in an interview:

“I do a huge amount of research on animals. But it’s the person that gives me a way in. Animals in the wild are boring. Before Fay Wray comes to Skull Island, King Kong isn’t doing anything. There’s no story until she shows up. What I’m doing, I think, is a sort of cultural history of the way animals live in the human imagination.”

Ford’s paintings reference texts found in colonial literature, folklore stories, mythological writings and other sources. One of his latest paintings called The Graf Zeppelin tells the story of gorilla Susie, the first and only trained gorilla at her time, brought to America in a first-class cabin on the Graf Zeppelin in 1929. She was captured in the Belgian Congo about 3 years earlier and shipped to France after her parents were violently shot.

With sadness, Susie gazes at the viewer. Her posture indicates that she's not feeling comfortable. She sits huddled in the corner of a sofa, shoulders pulled up, tightly holding her foot with one hand. The sofa’s beautiful fabric, the cabin’s floral wallpaper and the heavy red curtains suggest an upscale and elaborate surrounding. Susie was extracted from her natural environment, taken up in the air on board of an airship and flown across the Atlantic. Through the cabin’s window only the vast ocean and a lonely ship are visible below the zeppelin. On the table and to Susie’s left lie tangerines, grapes, carrots, pears and a pomegranate  - a poor substitute to her natural diet or habitat.

Walton Ford
The Graf Zeppelin, 2014
watercolor, gouache and ink on paper

Ford often adds text to the paintings in his usual thin, cursive, old-fashioned looking writing. However, along with the painting Windsor, May, 1829 depicting the smoking mandrill Jack, for the first time in his body of work, Ford writes down a few sentences telling the story from the apes’ own perspective on the bottom of the paper:

“I no longer feel like biting. All the strangeness has made me very tired. The people here have flat faces, the color of tongues. They bark loudly and move quickly. They offer food to me, most of it soft and sweet. I am out of the rain almost always now, inside hard shelters. This shelter seems to be moving. I feel like I’m sitting on a high branch in the wind… being carried somehow. I remember the feeling, of being carried through the warm rain on my mother’s back; my hands and feet gripping her wet fur...rolling along… floating along… the green wet world passing above and below. Now I’m being carried along very high and far. The cool rain passes out there, but in here my fur is dry; and these chattering people carry piles of fruit and watch me while I eat it.”

Although humans are rarely depicted in Ford paintings, they are very present. Susie is located in a human made environment - a cabin on an airship. Nothing resembles the gorilla’s natural habitat in the Belgian Congo, where it was caught. In The Graf Zeppelin Ford gives the gorilla a voice. Susie describes her situation in the unnatural environment, remembering and missing the time with her mother in the jungle, mentioning how men watch her eat. Susie becomes an attraction to satisfy human’s fascination for the wild. The tragic text evokes pity from the viewer. We can relate to the gorillas emotions: Weariness, discomfort, homesickness and yearning. However, whose words are these really? Ford is letting the animal use English language to communicate in a diary-like fashion with many human attributes. In the end we have to admit that it is what we think goes through the gorilla’s mind, while her words become no more than a human projection.

It is not the first time that a text has been written by men from gorilla Susie’s perspective: In 1945, the Cincinnati zoo - the zoo that eventually purchased Susie - published a 6 page booklet on the gorilla. The publication is titled A brief history of “Susie”. world famous gorilla. as told by her, to her trainer W.M. Dressman. In this short text her journey from the Belgian Congo, over France to the US is explained from her perspective. There are also some facts given about gorillas in captivity. The last part of the text uses Susie’s voice to advertise the zoo by inviting people and their friends to visit her, letting them know her performance schedule. The animal is exploited for commercial purposes.

Once again Ford’s most recent works are allegories of war, politics and imperialism and remain a critique of the history of colonialism and our relationship towards the animal world. However, in his latest set of painting he’s adding a more emotional component by deftly triggering the spectator’s empathy. Hence, the viewer becomes more involved in the stories that are being told and eventually is being pulled into the arena away from the spectator’s seat.