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A text panel early in "Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors by Walton Ford" notes that the artist has been called "Audubon on Viagra." It's a clever line, and Ford could indeed be seen as the great painter of The Birds of America with a hard-on. But he could also just as easily be thought of as "Audubon on Acid" or "Audubon on Ecstasy." Both John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Walton Ford personify the artist as visionary, even mystic.
"Tigers of Wrath," which originated at the Brooklyn Museum and is now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, is an exhilarating exhibition of 30 large-scale watercolors by Ford, who was born in Larchmont, New York, in 1960 and is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. His medium of choice is almost invariably a combination of watercolor, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper, and his subject matter is always, as far as I can tell, the animal kingdom, which he approaches as a repository for allegories and parables about humans and their behavior.
There's no catalog for the show, and that's a real shame. Fortunately, the Norton's chief curator, Roger Ward, has supplied detailed wall-text panels for each painting, providing much-needed background information — Ford is an artist best appreciated within a context. There are also text panels that offer excerpts from interviews (unlike so many artists, he's an articulate spokesman for his work) and other general information. Even the paintings themselves include text, in the form of marginalia in the artist's handwriting. Ford says it's the sort of thing you see in both Audubon as well as "those 19th-century explorer-artist guys."
In other words, expect to do a great deal of reading if you're to get a good handle on Ford. Some may find this challenging; others may find it simply annoying. Either way, Ford has no sympathy for them. An interviewer asks, "Do you think enough artists today are doing content and allegory?" and Ford responds: "No. I think that we've lost the ability to read allegory. People look at my paintings, and there's a tremendous amount of information in them, and they say, 'What's it about?' I'm like, 'Goddamn, I've given you everything! I've thrown the freaking kitchen sink in it!' Even though it's obscure or cryptic, the code is in the picture. Nobody even attempts to decode it on their own. Not no one — plenty of art critics do."
Well, thanks for what sounds like a compliment, but I would be hard-pressed to decipher most of these images without Ward's assistance. Take, for instance, Thanh Hoang (1997), the painting that opens the exhibition and as magnificent an image as any I've seen this year. On the surface it's just a big (60 inches by 119 inches) picture of a long, lean tiger being assailed by bees.
Ward assigns it at least two readings. "On one level, it is the visualization of an ancient myth which explains the origin of the tiger's black stripes." The tiger, in this story, was originally orange with white highlights and received its black markings only after it had been captured and escaped during a fire, with the charred ropes that had bound it leaving their mark.
"On another level," Ward continues, "the painting relates the suffering of the tiger to the injustices visited upon Vietnam by an endless succession of foreign invaders such as the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. The year inscribed in the top left corner — A.D. 40 — is the year of a briefly successful rebellion led by the Trung sisters, who killed themselves when the uprising was quashed by the ruling Chinese. Inscribed in the bottom margin are the names of politicians and military leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, and numerous others. The silhouettes of several of these individuals are incorporated into the black stripes of the tiger...." The explication goes on, but you get the gist of it.
The amazing thing is that most of Ford's paintings can be similarly parsed. Sometimes, there are much simpler interpretations, as in Der Panterausbruch (2001), which translates as The Panther Escape. The reference is to the escape, in 1934, of a female black panther from the Zurich zoo. And sometimes the text is just a footnote to an image that holds its own. Shelter Island (2006), for instance, is a fairly straightforward Audubon-style portrait of a great black-backed gull, which is identified as the largest of all seagulls and a voracious predator with an indiscriminate appetite. Here, it is portrayed grasping a crab in its beak, surrounded below by a smorgasbord that includes ears of corn, mussels, worms, a lobster, an artichoke, and watermelon, with a human skull over to the side for good measure.
That human skull emphasizes a recurring gruesome element in Ford's work, which he readily acknowledges: "The big, big thing I'm always looking for is a sort of attraction/repulsion, where the stuff is beautiful to begin with until you notice some horrible violence is about to happen or is in the middle of happening. Often that can be the moment when an animal is defined by and enters human culture."
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.
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.