Walton Ford is an American artist with an immense awareness of literature, culture, science and history. There are no mistakes in his current exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum, Tigers of Wrath consisting of more than 50 large-scale watercolors using a style of natural history artists, one more powerful than the next.
At first approach you may think you are in the American Museum of Natural History viewing life size studies of animals in their natural environment. But soon you come to realize that Ford’s world, although based on science, culture and our natural world, quickly becomes a surreal realism or a dream gone wild. Ford draws inspiration from nineteenth century artists, particularly John James an Audubon illustrator known for a collection of life size prints of birds. He also is very interested in telling untold stories, which he finds fascinating. One such story is depicted in The Starling. This piece first viewed as astoundingly executed, is an untold story he simply wanted to tell, the origin of the bird and its particular invasive personality. In the painting, birds from all over the world are coming to feed the starling acting out a metaphor for its overwhelming and destructive nature.
This theme of beauty vs. distress is seen over and over again. And although it continues in multiple pieces, the strange and bizarre actions of the animals keep you wanting more. Even among the vigorous events there is elegance that complements the execution of the work as art. Exploring the work becomes a fun pastime being that the pieces are on a large-scale and are so intensely detailed. The scale of the work offers a realistic sense and scientific justification when viewing animals as one would find in a zoo, enhancing the overwhelming reality of the animals in such actions. Ford’s work can force you to wonder if art is teaching nature or vice versa. You continue to battle between what is real and what isn’t.
Fords work at first glance may be seen as classical from afar, but his pieces are definitely contemporary and modern through twists, play with the absurd and its relationships with its viewer’s morals and values. The paintings stand on their own and although he tells a story one may not know, the viewer can look at this body of work and relate to each piece through the animals and naturalistic settings, as well as relation to beauty, power, horror, fear and farce. While the animals are acting out metaphors and unusual events, the paintings remain sincere in that these acts provoke emotions that one can connect to.
Ford’s Tigers of Wrath is unmistakably moving and through its flowing continuum of emotion and rhythmic forces of beauty and grace or astonishing balance of purity and grotesque, it always brings a charge to our senses.
January 24, 2007