From the Archives: Walton Ford for Juxtapoz May-June 1999Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 15 Feb 2011
In conjunction with our video profile Juxtapoz Presents: Walton Ford, being released this week, we look at the cover story we published with Ford for our May/June 1999 issue. Not only was the magazine hitting a full stride, Ford was fast becoming a major contemporary art figure.
Inside the Watercolor World of WALTON FORD
At first glance, Walton Ford’s precise watercolor portraits evoke the muted palette of Audubon, but upon closer examination, the myriad levels of meaning and allegorical complexity begin to reveal themselves to the dedicated viewer. Meg Linton takes a closer look at why the caged bird sings.
IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, a gentleman by the name of Eugene Schieffelin had a grand vision. He wanted New York’s Central Park to be filled with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s literary works. In 1890, he actually released a number of non-native species into the park, including 100 European starlings. Most of the birds died, but the starlings thrived. By 1910, this pretty, nasty, little bird had invaded the Midwest and by 1940 had infiltrated California.
“I guess the starlings finally made it to Alaska in the fifties. They must be in South America by now. It’s an extremely aggressive species, and it drives other birds from their nests. The starlings practice polygamy—in fact, there isn’t a sin the starling doesn’t embrace. But aside from this, they can be really beautiful. Their song can be interesting but also quite shrill and garbled. Like Anglo-Saxons, they’ve gone everywhere we’ve gone and displaced the native species.” (Walton Ford, interview with Ron Platt).
This little tidbit of natural history is the kind of odd story Walton Ford finds fascinating. For him, the European starling is the Anglo-Saxon incarnate, and it appears in many of his watercolors as the opportunistic, ill-informed Westerner ready to induct so-called third world countries into the global economy. These meticulous and sensational watercolors of birds and other natural life are, of course, an homage to the great American naturalist, John James Audubon; but perhaps more important they are politically charged commentaries on present day foreign policy, trade relations, and cultural affairs. The images are detailed narratives with protagonists, antagonists, and innocent bystanders, which are to be read for their content as well as admired for their beauty.
By using beauty and pictorial familiarity, Ford seduces us into his “unnatural” world. He poses, in the same composition, disparate but complementary species—a North American belted kingfisher with an Indian counterpart like the white-breasted kingfisher—that would never meet in the wild, and uses their inherent characteristics to represent cultural, political, or philosophical conflict. He expands Audubon’s habit/trademark of anthropomorphizing his subjects into heroic, predatory, sheepish, or cowardly animals by using the various avians as symbols for nations, lobbyists, or investors. Ford’s decision to emulate Audubon’s style follows an earlier body of work dedicated to dispelling American folklore surrounding the nineteenth-century wildlife painter.
Audubon, the consummate American naturalist, was French. His father sent him to America in 1803 at the age of eighteen to prevent him from following Napoleon into battle. He was a handsome man who lived between two languages—never really mastering either—and preferred the frontier to civilization but understood the benefits of the latter. He did marry and become an American citizen. A painter, an adventurer, a good storyteller, and a hunter, Audubon struggled most of his life for money, until he left for Great Britain and published his beautiful portfolio, Birds of America, 1827–38. While publishing and selling his portfolio in Edinburgh and London, he indulged himself in the creation and cultivation of his “American frontiersman” persona by wearing a deerskin suit, painting self-portraits as a wild hunter in American forests, and writing an outlandish autobiography of his kills. The picture he painted of a frontiersman fighting Indians and hunting bears added to the promotion of America as a wealth of exotic nature and opportunity. He flourished among Europeans as a purveyor of the exciting tales of the New World, capitalizing on their curiosity and desire for vast open spaces, untamed land, and new sources of income.
In his early oil paintings, Ford approached Audubon as an historical figure rather than an artist, “and showed what the naturalist’s images meant in terms of wildlife carnage,” (David Frankel, Artforum, Oct ‘97). He caught Audubon “behind the scenes” and revealed his secrets by depicting episodes showing the necessary or unnecessary slaughter required to render a creature’s likeness in scientific detail. Audubon would take a dead bird, if it was not too damaged by buckshot, arrange it in various poses, and then draw it. Sometimes he would nail the body to a board and contort the bird to expose as many of its field marks as possible, thus giving the bird an unnatural appearance on the page. For the artist, a good day’s work would result in at least 100 dead carcasses. Ford then “placed this aspect of Audubon … into a larger and damning picture of white presence in the Americas, our ancestors’ attitude towards the land and towards what they found there.” (David Frankel) Some say if John James Audubon were living today, he would use a camera instead of a gun to still his subject, but a reading of his journals suggests that he possessed a disturbing thirst for blood not necessarily associated with this type of scientific collecting and documentation.
During the creation of the epic oil paintings, which were primarily devoted to exposing the “whole truth” of our American past, Ford soon realized he could create his own “Audubon”watercolors to discuss current affairs within a historical context. Today, Ford uses many of Audubon’s pictorial stylings, including the distortion of the bird; however, he uses distortion to create a disturbing effect, not as a way to scientifically identify a species. In his watercolors Conclusions and Na raamro (a Nepalanese phrase meaning “no good”), both of the featured birds are crammed onto the page as if being forced into unnatural boundaries. The contortion of the form becomes a metaphor for oppression. He also incorporates Audubon’s habit of making field notes in the borders of his paintings and mimics Audubon’s handwriting. However, Ford’s “field notes” are filled with quotes from international tourism policies, nineteenth century literature, and current periodicals. The commentary in the watercolors exhibited here relates primarily to India, and results from a 1995 trip, when Ford traveled there with his family for six months. This trip fueled these works and inspired the development of his most complex subject matter—tourism, cultural misunderstanding, and the subtleties of economic imperialism.
“When you’re in India, you’re directly implicated because there is more of a caste structure in place. I was at the top of the entire economic schema there. So many people depend on you for their livelihood because you’re a tourist. That’s very painful at times because there are nine hundred million people there, a good third of whom live in a poverty that nobody in the West can conceive of. Their poverty line has to do with having enough calories… But everybody knows about that India. What I didn’t know anything about was that as a Westerner you’re also considered an outcast—an untouchable—because they know you eat meat or wear leather. If you’re talking to a Brahmin or a devout Hindu, they’re being very kind just to deal with you. You’re a pretty repulsive creature to them. Because I was not Hindu and I was out of my culture, I didn’t understand what was going on. You don’t even realize it, but you’re getting treated like an idiot, because to them you’re behaving like one. So, that’s the other side of it. Westerners are an abomination and a source of income.” (Walton Ford, interview with Ron Platt)
Ford did not paint while he was in India, but he gathered information and took hundreds of photographs that he intended to use when he returned to his studio in New York. He was fascinated with the Indian manner of appropriating select Western elements/products, as well as how subversive and futile it seems for Westerners to try and convert this 5,000-year-old culture into a nation of good, Western-style consumers. NGO wallahs, (NGO—non-governmental organizations) speaks of misguided altruistic acts performed by such organizations as the Peace Corps or religious charities. In Hindi, a wallah is an expert, and anyone can be a wallah—for example, Ford would be a painting wallah. The central figure is the Indian marabou (also known as the adjutant stork). This bird is a powerful scavenger who frequents dried-up marshes and dumps. It eats garbage, stranded fish, frogs, reptiles, insects, and carrion. Gathered at the stork’s feet are several native birds—all requiring specific diets—surrounding a European starling who is doling out Hershey’s Kisses. Instead of providing substantial food, aid, or tools for self-sufficiency, NGOs are handing out the sweetness of the West—capitalism—and trying to create a desire for it through an attraction or addiction to Western products.
Development Strategy is one of Ford’s smaller works, but it speaks out profoundly about global marketing and the premeditated destruction of local economy and subsistence-living. It features the ever-efficient kingfishers, who are “catch-of-the-day” wallahs, used in this instance to represent the small-time fisherman who sells his product to the locals. This lone entrepreneur is not recorded on any GNP report. He exists purely outside the system. Seen hanging from the tree next to the kingfishers are several tacky, shiny Western fishing lures. These lures are being marketed as a way to fish that is technically superior to the way it has been done for thousands of years. The idea is that the “natives” should use the lures and become dependent on the product, which makes them participants in the global economy and destroys their self-sufficiency. In a personal interview with Ford, he gave a perfect example of this type of strategy being used in India:
“When you buy a cup of tea in India, it comes in an earthenware cup that’s been baked, but it’s unglazed. It’s like a red-clay flowerpot you would buy at a nursery. It’s perfectly sanitary and is a beautiful little cup. When you’re finished with your tea, you throw the cup on the ground, it shatters into a million pieces, and turns to earth. They have been doing this for centuries. In the oldest archeological digs in India, they uncovered these cups … When we were there, we started seeing plastic disposable cups. You would see pigs and cows in the gutters chewing on them because they have a little sugar on the edges. The animals were choking on fragments of these plastic cups, and now there’s litter in the streets … This thing had worked so well for thousands of years. People were employed on a local level baking these cups. They’re baked, one-use, sanitary, biodegradable cups. Everything about it was perfect. You will never see a better cup in your whole life for drinking tea. The scary, insidious thing about all this is we want them to buy the plastic cup. We will do everything in our power to make it harder for them to get the clay cup, until we own the market, and then they are screwed, because we will own the market and their environment will go to hell.”
From the wildlife and conflicts of India, Ford is expanding his vision to include other areas of the world in turmoil. His most recent body of work from 1998 is represented by one monumental watercolor called Chingado. This provocative image speaks loudly about the ongoing revolution begun in 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico. The bull represents the Spanish, beginning with Cortez, and the jaguar symbolizes the powerful spirit of the Maya. The two beasts are pictured simultaneously fighting and copulating. The bull seems to have a stronghold on the situation, but still he is branded with the Mayan hieroglyph of war, while the jaguar has its teeth clenched in the bull’s throat. In the distance, flames rise behind Palenque. Ford suggests that the risk is always that both sides will destroy what they are fighting to preserve. This violent dance represents the complex and confusing conflicts created when two or more cultures collide. These battles are being and have been fought on every continent, and such conflicts are a part of our natural history as human beings. The positive effect is one of blended cultures, new languages, new thought, greater understanding, and a stronger community.
The work of Walton Ford is beautiful, compelling, forceful, and brutal. He makes us feel comfortable by offering images we think we know, images we think we can digest in five seconds flat and never question. However, these images take time to read: they are novels rather than short stories. The tension between beauty and horror, surface and depth, attraction and repulsion, immediacy and delay tangle the plot and make these works remarkably effective as current political commentaries. Ford is addressing the present state of the world through nineteenth century notions of natural history, which have strongly influenced capitalism and economic imperialism. He seduces us with brilliant technical skill lashed to lush colors and majestic fauna, and then he forces us to look at our often vain, illogical, and cruel human actions. He is holding up the proverbial mirror. ?
Meg Linton is curator of the exhibition Avatars: The Watercolors of Walton Ford at the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, (January 26–March 26, 1999) and Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum.