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It pleases me that my favourite living painter – the American watercolorist Walton Ford – can deftly interpret his own work with reference to great American literature.

Ford’s Wikipedia page says he paints “large scale” watercolours after the style of John J. Audubon (1785-1851), a French-American naturalist and painter known for realistic studies of North American birds (The Birds of America 1827-1839). The wildlife and ecosystems conservation group The Audubon Society is named for him.

Ford’s “large scale” approach to painting might more accurately be described as “life-sized.” Woodpeckers, parrots, owls, hawks, great auks; cobras, pythons, crocodiles; wolves, lions, tigers, bears, buffalo, camels, rhinos, elephants – Ford paints them to scale. In detail. In watercolour. On the brink of death and copulating, separately or simultaneously. Monkeys plunder banquet tables; flocks of birds carry off entire trees; a peacock with smoldering tail feathers wanders a barren landscape – Ford’s paintings are never without context or story, they are always something uncanny, allegorical, captivating but sinister. The scenes he renders make it appear as if Ford has caught the animals in a moment, caught them in the act.

And always, as I’ve said, to scale. This is important.

Because Ford’s latest series features King Kong.

It’s about these portraits – full-scale busts of the gorilla’s head as he appeared in 1933 – that Ford compares Kong to the narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) Humbert Humbert:

“The depression era Kong was misshapen, not modeled on any living ape. He has an odd, ugly, shifting charisma like Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Bogart. Naturally, his woman screamed in terror. She continues screaming throughout their time together. The grief of the original Kong is the grief of the unloved, and like Humbert Humbert or Frankenstein, the grief of the unlovable. In 1933, Fay Wray says words that would break any suitor’s heart. She shrinks from the chained Kong and tells her human lover, ‘I don’t like to look at him…’ Since Kong is a Hollywood tough guy, he covers up his heartbreak with violence and anger. These paintings are bout Kong’s heartbreak. I wanted to reveal the monster’s grief, his enormous sadness, the sorrow that the original Kong kept hidden from view.”

Kong and Humbert alike are enduring American archetypes. They are unsettlingly familiar insofar as they are attractive and destructive, sympathetic and repulsive, pastoral and apocalyptic – thrillingly controversial for all they represent.

Ford’s intelligent comparison of Kong and Humbert increases my admiration and appreciation of him and his art. He’s more than just obsessively meticulous in his research and complex brushwork – he’s also knowledgeable of great American literary art. He’s as thoughtful and analytic as he is ambitious.

Walton Ford is represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York.

–          Joe

PS – Bonus points if you appreciate the juxtaposition of Ford’s painting of a great auk (“The Witch of St. Kilda” 2005) with the image from Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). I should also add that the corresponding banner (below) is a view of Manhattan, looking south from the observation deck of the Empire State building, in 1931: Kong’s vantage.

VERBA AMERICANA

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