Walton Ford appropriates the crisp, descriptive style of 19th-century naturalists and artists—John James Audubon, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin—but he puts their conventions to work in an investigation of natural history itself.
Repurposing a field-guide aesthetic, Ford composes dense allegories that make sometimes pointed, sometimes sidelong allusions to everything from conservationism and consumption to war, politics and imperialism.
While staying uncannily faithful to the natural history mode, Ford paints on a much larger scale, producing outsize watercolors with epic compositions. He renders his scenes with operatic drama, capturing moments when the natural order changes, such as the last member of a species struggling just before extinction.
A mid-career survey of the 46-year-old artist’s work, titled “Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors by Walton Ford,” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 28.
We recently found Ford in his studio in Great Barrington, Mass. and asked him how he developed his unusual style, how his dense compositions take shape and what, if any, conclusions we should draw from his complex allegories.
Walton, you were certainly not alone in adding a heavy dose of realism to figurative painting in the last 15 years or so, but your unique and consistent style definitely sets you apart from your peers. How do you see your work fitting into trends in contemporary painting?
Some of my contemporaries are just interested in talking about fashion or pornography. You have an American Apparel-style theory of making art, and I couldn’t be more bored with that. But that seems to be all that some painters seem to be interested in now.
And I think, “God, you know, look at what’s happening in the world. Is that your preoccupation: Celebrity, glamour and pornography? Is that really what we’re going to go down in flames celebrating?”
I’m more interested in the project that I’m working on, which has to do with natural history and human culture and the intersection between them.
I am less interested in engaging issues of contemporary theory or something. My work reacts to the history of natural history and the history of people’s interactions with animals and other cultures and things like that. And our way of remembering natural history events and creatures that are now extinct.
How did the project develop?
As a kid, I imagined myself growing up to become a standard natural history artist. And the idea was that I was going to live on the edge of a national park and somehow go out with binoculars and draw these animals and become someone who lived that kind of life.
As I grew up to be a teenager and became rebellious—in the era that Punk and New Wave music hit—that was not going to happen. I wasn’t going to be some kind of duck stamp artist.
After [eventually] rejecting that, I was flailing around as an art student making pornographic drawings and trying to become a filmmaker because I felt I had stories to tell. It took a while for me to come to the realization that the thing I had been doing that I was so good at was looking at animals and drawing them, and that I was able to see and draw in a way that was unusual. You end up having contempt for the things you’re good at sometimes.
When did you begin to take painting animals seriously again?
After I was out of RISD for about six or seven years, I made a few paintings, and Bill [Arning], who used to run White Columns, got a couple of those. And then Irving Blum of Blum-Helman saw them and liked them and bought a few.
Suddenly, real art world personalities like that were responding so strongly to the work that I was doing for pleasure on the side. I had these big ponderous oil paintings going at the time, but I was making these little watercolors of birds—they looked like little Audubons—and they were driving people crazy. They loved them, and I loved making them.
They were so easy to make that it occurred to me that I should explore it a little further. I realized what I really needed to do was make it difficult. In other words, I pushed the very thing that came easily to me into a realm that made it very, very hard to do.
Is that why you began to push the subject matter by bringing in allegorical elements?
I always felt that I needed to justify drawing on this tradition that is so cliché. There was always an attempt to push the cliché, or use it in a way that it became no longer a cliché. If you could make an image that looks so familiar appear unfamiliar, then that was good for the narrative—that could drive a work.
It’s just a Postmodernist’s strategy that is pretty tried and true.
In terms of your process, how do you select the animals or moments from natural history that form the basis of your paintings?
I start by just reading and reading and finding a story that I can latch on to. The depth of the research will lead me to an area of mystery. What I like about these works is that the more you know about these animals, the stranger the story gets and the more complicated—and the less likely you are to nail down a pro or a con kind of feeling about [events in natural history].
Before making Falling Bough (2002), I was reading as much as I possibly could about passenger pigeons and finding out things about them that were repellent, such as the fact that they would eat enormous amounts of food, regurgitate and then keep eating. They could clear farmers out, and there were times when they were a menace.
There was something totally frightening about passenger pigeons. They would come in and just dominate the landscape so completely like a hurricane. It started me thinking about how to make an image that was full of foreboding that would give you the idea that these things were not just beautiful—that they were frightening.
And then, you can take it a step further and imagine that they deserved to die—that they were a horror and they deserved to be extinct.
Why do so many of your works deal with that kind of violence?
The natural history that I am interested in has to do with collections of preserved specimens or menageries of one kind or another or exotic pets or going out in the field and discovering species in the wild. Those are the stories that are the most riveting to me.
I have a fascination with extinct animals, but I’m not interested in animals that were driven extinct by natural forces—that just sort of went away, vanished. I’m much more concerned with how European culture impacted the world when we spread out everywhere and took places over and made the world that we know today.
You typically spell out the historical subject of a piece within the painting, but, while some of your work contains specific social and political allusions, others are less explicit. How important is it for you that viewers walk away with a sense of what you are trying to communicate in these allegories?
I hope so much that I don’t screw that balance up. When it isn’t good, it’s a political cartoon that you could read instantly—a one-liner—which doesn’t continue to reveal anything after it’s finished. I’m always a little bit afraid of that.
Some of the ones that I like the most—Le Jardin (2005), for example—are quite difficult to pin down to any specific meaning.