Texting Nature

Do Walton Ford's intriguingly oddball watercolors make him the post-modern Audubon?

A fine example is Delirium (2004), which is a grim reminder that Audubon killed his subjects before painting them. The painting shows a golden eagle trying to fly away after having been snared in a fox trap. Audubon reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to asphyxiate the bird until, as he wrote, "I was compelled to resort to a method always used as the last expedient, and the most effectual one. I thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead." Ford compresses this drama into a startling image.

One of Ford's specific preoccupations is with endangered or extinct species, and this provides a frame of reference for one of the show's most breathtaking paintings, Falling Bough (2002), which portrays a huge tree branch suspended in midair, covered by countless passenger pigeons. Here, once again, context is essential.

Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in North America until their use as cheap meat caused the population to plummet during the 19th Century, until the last known bird died in 1914. As Ward notes, "Migrating flocks would sometimes comprise as many as two billion individuals, being tens of miles wide and two hundred miles in length (such a flock would take several days to pass by a given point.)" Such a flock is the subject of Ford's painting, which shows the flock receding infinitely into the background, as in the foreground so many birds have settled on a single branch that it becomes airborne itself.

Details

"Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors by Walton Ford" On display through September 2 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.

The ever-articulate Ford has commented that the painting is about "our concepts of blaming the victim. I make the birds as repulsive as I can so that they bring their own destruction on themselves deservedly, the way that we like to view things. That is how we view peoples that we have wiped out and environments that we destroy. They have to be described in a way that makes it palatable that their destruction was inevitable."

This, in a nutshell, captures an undeniably political element in Ford's work that makes him much more than a chronicler of wildlife. You might not agree with his often-controversial allegories, but it's impossible to deny his artistic virtuosity. "Tigers of Wrath" is yet another installment in a banner year for the Norton.

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