Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The artist as twisted humorist

Walton Ford plays with your mind

Express Staff Writer

A New York art dealer gazed at the Walton Ford paintings that were hanging in the Paul Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan, shook his head and muttered, "Where do you get these crazy ideas?"

Ford's meticulous creations are a blending of natural history with political commentary and they come from intense research. Inspired by his own animal-crazed youth, the Museum of Natural History in New York and John James Audubon, his paintings take the celebrated Audubon style and give it a yank, turning the renowned naturalist-painter's myth inside out.

Ford says he does it for shock value. "(Audubon) shot more birds than he ever painted." It turns out to be quite true, it's how he was able to paint them so beautifully.

Some of Ford's remarkable paintings are on display at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum as part of the "Biodiversity" exhibition, which closes Saturday, March 25.

A 1982 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, eccentric, individual and a "dude" by anyone's standards, Ford has become a genuine star in the art market.

The animals in his work are often stand-ins for misbehaving humans. People such as the 19th century adventurer Sir Richard Burton figure into his series of paintings, as do explorer, conservationist, sculptor, photographer Carl Akeley, who died in 1926. Known as the "father of modern taxidermy," Akeley was the hunter who killed, skinned and reconstructed animals for the famous dioramas at the Museum of Natural History.

Ford has said about his work, "It's like a mini-history of colonialism right there." He ages his paintings, and writes in painterly calligraphy the names of animals and events in Latin. They are mesmerizing displays of his talents and serious brainteasers.

In fact, humor plays a large part in his paintings even when they are indictments of the wrongs committed by 19th-century industrialists, slave owners and contemporary consumers.

In an interview on PBS's "ART in the 21st Century," Ford said, "The big, big thing I'm always looking for in my work is a sort of attraction-repulsion thing, where the stuff is beautiful to begin with until you notice that some sort of horrible violence is about to happen or is in the middle of happening. Or that it's some sort of interior monologue."

Ford is the recipient of several national awards and honors including a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ford's work has hung in many galleries and shows, and at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion in Stamford, Conn., and the Forum for Contemporary Art in St. Louis.

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