Walton Ford, painter of animals, looks like an indigenous species in the penthouse of the Mondrian Soho. At the Thursday after-party there for the opening of his latest exhibition, he wore a gray three-piece suit over his wide and tall frame, and the dim lights reflected off his Colonel Kurtz-style shaved head. He gripped a giant green bottle of Champagne and told an assembled group about a friend of his named Whitney, a professional dominatrix, who’d just left the party.
“She beats up all the most famous men in the world,” he said, enthusiastically demonstrating a whipping motion, unhindered by his suit. “And so I ask her, ‘What if they want to fuck you?’ And she says, ‘I’ll fucking kill them if they even ask.’ If they even ask, they know they’re going to get killed. She’s so powerful.”
“She makes a fortune,” he said, delighted. “She has a dungeon. She calls it a studio.”
It’s easy to see why such a description would appeal to Mr. Ford, whose new show, “I Don’t Like to Look at Him, Jack. It Makes Me Think of That Awful Day on the Island,” takes its name from the original, 1933 King Kong and features three massive—nine-foot-by-12-foot—watercolors of the creature’s face, in various states of distress. Kong blubbering, Kong in a rage, tears brimming in his eyes, Kong dejected with snot running out of his smashed gorilla nose. Aside from the emotion, they’re your standard, run-of-the-mill life-size watercolors of King Kong, though with the angst you get the impression that instead of Fay Wray, these Kongs might kidnap Daphne Guinness—a friend of Mr. Ford’s who has visited his studio and was at the after-party.
“I was reading the script of the original movie,” Mr. Ford said at the gallery the next day, “when I realized, when Fay Wray says this, ‘I don’t like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island,’ that was the best day for King Kong, that was the best day he ever had. He had his best girl. He undressed her, he saved her from a tyrannosaurus, he climbs up Skull Mountain with her, he had this wonderful day and he has this beautiful plaything. The worst day of her life was the best day of his and you can’t have a worse stalker disconnect than the one between Kong and Fay Wray.”
Mr. Ford lives and works in Great Barrington, Mass., and the opening and after-party saw a strong Berkshires contingent. Two men raved about the work and at the end of the conversation revealed themselves to be Mr. Ford’s local optometrists. One group wore knitted masks of animals—owls, foxes, rabbits—made by a local artisan/waitress/mom named Huckleberry DelSignore who said Mr. Ford showed her his collection of gorilla death masks at his studio.
A more familiar face at the opening was Salman Rushdie, who’d never met Mr. Ford before that evening but said the two had many friends in common who thought they’d get along. They did (“He’s very enjoyable”).
“They have the most incredible wit, and some ferocity, in them,” the writer said of the paintings.
The new works are the largest Mr. Ford has ever made, and they represent a mutation of style, not only in their size (although there is that too—he told Calvin Tomkins in 2009 that he couldn’t make a painting larger than five-foot-by-12-foot because of the paper size, but he found a way for these). He’s heavily influenced by John J. Audubon, to the point where most of his work could be mistaken for the illustrator’s at first glance. Then you notice that the bull isn’t just fighting with the jaguar, it’s also raping it. And that there’s no way a bird could actually fit that many frogs in its beak.
Like Audubon, Mr. Ford prefers to make his creatures to scale—those depicted in Birds of America, he said with amusement, look like “they were pressed in a book like a flower.” He recently went through a difficult divorce with his wife of 23 years, whom he met at Brown when they were both 18, but when they traveled to India on her Fulbright Indo-American Fellowship 17 years ago, he was taken with a series of tiger paintings in Jaipur that were made when the maharaja would shoot the animal and then order a life-size painting be made with the exact same stripes. He has made size-accurate paintings of an elephant and a rhinoceros, but those were done in panels. All his life he’s wanted to do a project around King Kong and the enormity of these works forced him to pioneer this new method of joining large strips of paper, weaving them together into a massive single sheet.
“We only get mad or sad at people when they don’t do what we want them to do,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s like a little kid having a tantrum at a birthday party or something. It didn’t go the way that I wanted it to go, so now I’m having this gigantic fit. And that’s all that King Kong does throughout the whole movie but generally he’s biting people in half and stuff as a result of his tantrum, but I just had him weep in the shrink’s office. It was weird how much that transformed his face—to look at the old stills of King Kong, they look for all the world like my paintings except for those tears. And that just immediately transforms it into something that you’ve never seen anything like.”
At the center of these pieces is grief.
“Grief,” he said, “is one of those emotions that takes over, so the enormity of it is always what people feel the most. You lose a loved one and the grief is so huge that you can’t imagine it passing. And it does pass. But it does fill the room like those paintings, and it scares the shit out of everybody.”
Mr. Ford is a regular at the Museum of Natural History, and though a precise anatomical accuracy in the animals he depicts is something of an obsession, to research these works he looked only to the original movie. In the remakes, Kong became much more gorillalike, he said, but the original creature is an amalgam of primate shapes unique to the tiny sculptures that were used to animate its movement and the giant contraption built to represent its face.
This entailed no less research on his part. His iPhone is filled with shots of the creature from the film and from behind-the-scenes photos. He studied Willis O’Brien, the alcoholic special effects artist who built the Kong models, and whose wife shot and killed their two sons.
His interest in the original Kong springs from his fascination with the monster as “an unloved figure who loved, like Humbert Humbert,” Mr. Ford said. He’s constantly biting himself, he pointed out. That element is lost in the remakes.
“In the ones where the gorilla is beautiful, the girl loves him and she cries when he dies,” Mr. Ford said. “The tragedy becomes ‘beauty and the beast,’ which is a very sweet story, but the original King Kong is truly a monster and the girl hates him, so the tragedy resides in the disconnect—they don’t have a relationship at all. She screams and tries to get away every opportunity she gets, and he is lovesick.”
Mr. Ford mused that he had no idea how Kong hoped to consummate this relationship with Fay Wray, but the second series on display at the gallery, a six-painting sequence in which a monkey approaches a parrot and tears off its head of while masturbating, offers something of a hypothesis. The story illustrated comes from Audubon’s memoirs—the Audubons kept exotic pets, and his mother’s monkey once killed his favorite bird. Though he never drew the sequence, Audubon writes that it made “a very deep impression on my youthful mind.”
These works are more in the style of Mr. Ford’s previous ones than the Kong series, and feature Audubonlike field notes along the edges quoting the passage, which reads partially, “the man of the woods probably thought the bird [was] presuming upon his rights in the scale of nature; be this as it may, he certainly showed his supremacy in strength over the denizen of the air, for, walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it, with unnatural composure.” In the six paintings, the bird and the monkey keep changing species, because Audubon never described the animals. The last painting features the monkey chained to a stone for his crime, which was the ultimate fate of the monkey in the story. Audubon had begged his parents to kill it. The sexual element in the pictures is elaboration on Mr. Ford’s part.
In discussing these works Mr. Ford referenced Jasper Johns’s frequently quoted impetus for art, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it.” The Observer asked if Mr. Ford thought that, with this new work, he was doing more “things” to “it.”
“Definitely trying,” he said. “I would hate to settle into comfortably making medium-sized bird watercolors for the rest of my life, so I’m always trying to think of a way to make them challenging for me.”
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