Calvin Tompkin’s profile on artist Walton Ford (“Man and Beast,” The New Yorker, 26 January 2009) left me with the impression that Ford is, along with John Currin, one of the new breed of American artist who is resuscitating the craft of painting from the bright dark age of neo-expressionism.
Ford’s paintings are life-like watercolors of wildlife reminiscent of John Audubon (and those surrealistically beautiful bird guides that I spent a childhood pouring over) but his paintings give more life and energy to his animals than anything ever seen before. He is a painter of birds, bulls, rhinoceroses, elephants and majestic predatory cats. He describes what he is doing as “a sort of cultural history of the way animals live in the human imagination.” His paintings fascinate me with their storybook strangeness and formal style. The power regained in watercolor by his extinct protagonists verges on satire as they become actors in recreations of their own demise, grand figures martyred and canonized. His work is topical without being political, literal but it still remains fantastical; his infatuation with the animals breeds an art of reclamation wherein their struggle against human kind is highlighted as an ignoble battle in which they were defenseless and passed bitterly. Here they are only to be remembered through the obscurity of a watercolor, which is removed farther from the real life animal than even a photograph: it’s the human-made imaging of a creature passing out of memory and into legend. He’s another one of the many artists (John Currin, Daren Waterston, Camille Rose Garcia, oh the list goes on!) that I would love to own a small work of but which will be impossible.