FROM THE VAULTS: July 2008, Interview with Walton Ford

"And I saw some cool images of this, of red antlered elk. And so I thought, just postulated, that maybe that was the thing that spooked the people of Basel the most. Y’know, an animal that they’ve never seen, with bloody horns, might seem like the devil. And there is something kind of Durer-like, y’know Night, Death, and the Devil quality about these kinds of animals anyway. So I realized he was a proper demon to those people."


 Walton Ford
 Thurneysser's Demon, 2008
 watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper
 60 x 120 inches (152.4 x 304.8 cm)
 Photography © Christopher Burke Studio.
 courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

Ajay Kurian speaks with Walton Ford

During Walton Ford’s latest exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery, I had a chance to sit down with him and tour his show alongside him. The resulting interview is much more than I expected. He has been known as a painter of animals, using them as surrogates for both people and ideas, as well as a Natural History artist in the 20th Century. Though the interview begins with a fantastic walk-through of the show, the interview then continued and meandered onto other topics such as narrative painting, Nazi mythologies, Persian bestiaries, and The Flaming Groovies.

The show itself, made up of six massive watercolor paintings, were quite formidable on their own, but Walton's presence certainly came close. A tall and well-built man, Walton arrives in a sport coat and trousers, shaved head and a firm handshake. And then we began.

A: Well, I guess since Basel’s going on right now…I kind of wanted to start with this one. (pointing to Thurneysser’s Demon)

W: (laughs)

A: I guess, what I know of the story is that Thurneysser brings this “demon”…

W: Yeah, Thurnyesser was a …I’m not even sure if I’m saying it right…but anyway, he was an alchemist, and sort of pseudo scientist, and a charlatan actually. He got run out of Basel the first time because he was gilding bars of lead and selling them as gold. He wrote a lot of stuff….and he was always spooking people. He must have had a really bad interface with people. They thought he kept demons in his ink jar because he was always using words that they didn’t think he knew because he didn’t make an impression that he actually knew these things. And he used to have a scorpion, preserved in a jar. So they thought it was some kind of devil too.

You know, they were suspicious of this guy. They thought he was kind of Faustian figure. So I guess he had been banished from Basel for a while. He did some work up in Poland – he cured some Count, I forget who it was, but it was a Count somewhere up in Poland who made a gift of an elk which is what we in America call a moose. But so, he gave Thurnyesser this moose and he brought the thing back to Basel and presented it to the city of Basel. They don’t have these elk in Switzerland, so the people freaked out. They thought it was some kind of demon, and apparently a pious old lady fed the elk an apple full of pins…which killed the elk. And this was all in a book that I have called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. It’s been reprinted but it’s from about 1916. A guy called Evans wrote it. It’s a fascinating book, because it has to do with trials and animals accused of witchcraft, all kinds of weird condemnation of animals over the years for basically human crimes.

A: So the animal is specifically vilified.

W: The animal is actually executed a lot of times in a very elaborate way – like in a public square with a hangman’s noose, or its head chopped off…and there’s a great tradition of this in Europe that we’ve just lost track of. People considered animals to have souls, but they believed they had demonic souls and that domestication was the thing that sort of controlled the demonic aspects of all animals. And so a loyal and decent horse could suddenly turn demonic and could suddenly allow its base nature to emerge. And then it would need to be punished, like a person.

So anyway, this elk – it died. But what interested me is just – well for one thing, they said this woman fed the elk with an apple [we exchange a knowing look]. Well, I did some research on elk, caribou, and deer. In the fall, when they lose this velvet on their horns – I don’t know if you know what that is.

A: Yeah.

W: Yeah, because antlers grow differently than bone. Bone grows from within, from the marrow, but on antlers the blood and membrane is on the outside and there’s a furry coating. And when the horn has matured, it actually dies, and so the animals scrape the velvet off, and for a few days their horns are this blood red because the bloody membrane is still attached to the horns.

A: Oooh.

W: And I saw some cool images of this, of red antlered elk. And so I thought, just postulated, that maybe that was the thing that spooked the people of Basel the most. Y’know, an animal that they’ve never seen, with bloody horns, might seem like the devil. And there is something kind of Durer-like, y’know Night, Death, and the Devil quality about these kinds of animals anyway. So I realized he was a proper demon to those people.

So, in the image I decided to make it ambiguous. You don’t know whether he’s eaten the apple yet or not. He’s not well….And it had almost nothing to do with the fact that this Art Fair was on, although it’s delightful that it was the case! I mean, it seemed like you could read in other narratives that would be just as valid.

A: Yeah, I guess after this period, it will explode into other different narratives.

W: Well that’s the thing. If you were bringing strange creatures into this Swiss city and the locals are maybe taken aback by it. That could be read into any way you want, especially if you wanted to think about contemporary artists.


 Walton Ford
   Hyrcania, 2007
 watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper
 60 x 119 1/2 inches
 152.4 x 303.5 cm
 courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

A: Yeah, exactly. That’s why I was bringing it up. Especially since there is a particular quality of presentation in how you’ve placed the animal. And so having that as a segway into the contemporary scene…


W: Exactly. Add to that the fact that the thing looks like an artifact. I mean I’ve often had my work in contemporary art fairs and it looks very strange in these settings. It doesn’t look like it belongs.

A: It must be kind of great seeing that.

W: Yeah, I’m very happy with that. You know, it’s like a time machine – things happening and they’re wrong. I mean, all the thinking behind the piece will be contemporary thinking. You couldn’t make the pieces without a sort of background or the kind of thinking that goes into contemporary art anyway. So it’s a funny project that way because it looks so anachronistic.

A: I mean the size alone…

W: Yeah, the size makes no sense because they’re watercolors on paper at this oddly epic scale. But for one thing, I do like to make the animals life-size because a lot of the early Naturalists did that. And that gives you a the startling Natural History Museum life-size reaction. I mean, every animal here is life-size [pointing to Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros]. That’s just one piece of it though. It also allows me to take a tiny piece of ephemera, or a piece of some obscure bit of knowledge and enlarge it, in a real physical way – like take the research and make it as large as life.

A: Another part of that kind of 19th century Naturalist tendency was using text in those images and it seems like there was more of this marginalia in your earlier work.


W:
Absolutely. I’m trying to wean myself from that. The idea behind the text was always to…well there’s always logical marginalia in the actual Natural History stuff that inspires me, but it usually has to do with notes to the printers, like “add a bit more landscape”, or Audobon used to leave notes for the people who painted vegetation in his paintings and said, you know, “put this bird on a willow or on a magnolia”, or something like this. And the boy, or sometimes a young woman, would have to go out and pick the thing and paint it behind his bird. So there’s a lot of marginalia in Audobon’s work. With mine, I always felt like I wanted to use the text in a way that revealed something that was completely not in the image. I do the same with titles. It would open a door to research if possible, if you wanted to figure out what was going on in the picture. And also it would add another layer of meaning to the image that wasn’t visually there, like “demon” – there’s nothing in the picture to indicate that this is a demon. Once you know that it’s a “demon”, it opens up another way of looking at the animal. It puts you closer to the state of mind that would lead a woman to feed it with an apple filled with pins.

I’m trying to recreate a cultural history of the way we think of animals and how we got to it being this way.

A: When you say you’re weaning yourself off of it, one of the things I found interesting about the marginalia in your work is that you couldn’t definitively say that these were prefatory comments. They had a weird place in the picture. You were faced with both image and text, but it wasn’t simultaneous, nor was it precisely before or after.


W: Yeah, and like I said, it was never an illustration of the text. It was an added layer of meaning. If I made this piece ten years ago, I might have intended to add a lot of writing about alchemy, or about the other things that Thurnyesser had been accused of, about his career, some key dates from when he was driven out of Basel originally. I still do that same research but I try to give myself a little room to let just the image breathe. I don’t know, I started feeling uncomfortable, and almost too pedantic, and too distrustful of the viewer in trying to direct them too much. I was fearful of suffocation. The only reason that people – or people who learn about art, at least – don’t like someone like Norman Rockwell is not because he paints homey subjects or because it’s corny; it’s not because of it’s Americana. It’s nothing like that – it’s because he doesn’t give you any room for interpretation. He suffocates you with the meaning of the picture immediately. So you look at it and you see here’s a little boy who just discovered there’s no Santa Claus. By opening his father’s drawer and pulling out a Santa Claus costume and realizing there’s no Santa. And so there’s no alternative narrative with that picture. It doesn’t allow you to go anywhere. If you’re a narrative painter I knew I had to be on guard against that. In the very best narrative pictures, even when they’re rooted in the specifics of history, like The Raft of the Medusa, it’s exactly what I’m trying to do in my pictures, in the sense that this is rooted in a specific shipwreck, with a political story behind it, and a whole scandal that erupted around it, but you can look at the picture and even if you just had your heart broken, that’s what it’s about. It’s one of those pictures that’s just much larger than all that. I mean it’s everything – it’s life, it’s death, its everything. Everything is in that picture! That’s why it’s a masterpiece. So you have to think: am I leaving the door open enough for that to happen? Because there’s nothing in that picture [The Raft] that suffocates you the way Norman Rockwell does. So even though I was trying to make my text expansive, that was one of the reasons why I got worried about it. I kind of want to leave it up to the viewer to expand it.

A:
I’m curious to see how it plays out because now that there’s already an established vocabulary of precision with your work, that level of detail, both visual and conceptual, is already within the piece, and so now it’s really just a matter of the viewer working a little bit harder to expand it.


W: Yeah, I was distrustful of…Well, okay here’s a good example: When I first went to Rome, I was looking at a lot of Catholic art that I didn’t know much about. I didn’t know the Catholic stories or the saints. Like, going to Assisi, and I didn’t know anything about St. Francis of Assisi. So then I look at this cycle of pictures by Giotto – they’re absolutely riveting! And you know, there’s stigmata, but I didn’t know that was happening. Or a figure is ripping his clothes off because he doesn’t want to “belong” to his father anymore. So he’s ripping his clothes off, walking naked, and his father is in a rage and you don’t know what’s going on, but you look and there’s this mysterious narrative going on. And really, not knowing it was one of the better times I had. Once I knew the story and how Giotto did, it was almost less interesting.

Also, the first time I went to India, it was the same thing. Who’s this Hanuman? Why does he have a mountain in his hand? And then you read the myth and okay, it makes sense. But when you first get there you think this is overwhelming and bizarre. And a lot of people still approach the Indian Gods as just decorative items that you see on tote bags at Urban Outfitters just because they look cool. And it’s a good thing and a bad thing, because knowing who they are is an added layer, but still – I wanted that mystery, I wanted to know that the things had that power on their own, like many of those images do. Because there’s something so universal about the suffering saint, or the monkey carrying the mountain. And what I was trying to do was come up with these kind of animal images, like the eagle and the serpent from Mexican mythology, that are just universal in some weird way, that just get you. And if my weird stories and the particulars are what make these stories and images more seductive, then that’s okay.


 Walton Ford
 Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros, 2008
 watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper
 Panel 1 framed: 98 1/4 x 42 3/4 inches; 249.6 x 108.6 cm
 Panel 2 framed: 98 1/4 x 62 3/4 inches; 249.6 x 159.4 cm
 Panel 3 framed: 98 1/4 x 42 3/4 inches; 249.6 x 108.6 cm
 courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

A: They’re certainly seductive, I mean, especially in talking about The Raft, [pointing to Loss]

W: Well, it’s funny, I had to study that to make this picture because it’s sort of an animal version of that in my mind. It’s the rhinoceros that Dürer drew. He was a gift to the Pope…Do you know this story?

A: I was reading a bit about it, and then I was looking at another work, Hyrcania. It seems, specifically with those two images, there’s an interest in what happens to life once it expires – or something that becomes greater than life once it leaves its station.


W: Exactly. With this particular piece. I never heard the story of the Dürer rhino before this. It was a gift – the Portuguese got the rhino, sent it to Goa, sent it up to Lisbon. In Lisbon somebody did a drawing of it. Then it was to be given to the Pope as a gift and on its way to the Pope, the boat sank in the Mediterranean with the rhino on board.

Now, Dürer somehow still got a sketch from Lisbon, with a written description and was able to make this sort of twisted rhinoceros that’s still accurate, in a way. It’s quite beautifully imagined – there are particulars that are real to a rhino, but it also looks kind of like a crustacean or a crab, which is really apt since this thing drowned.

So the moment of transformation, where this animal goes from an actual animal to being transformed into an icon that for 300 years people drew and believed to be a rhino, is the moment I painted. So here he’s dying, but he’ll be reborn from the ocean as this armored crustacean, and really live for another thousand years as this transmogrified creature.

So that was an art historical moment that had never been painted. It also gave me an opportunity to…I painted a rhino the way rhinos actually look. So this is a portrait of what Dürer never saw, though this is the moment at which he’s turning into Dürer’s rhino. So it’s a comment on the way we impose our culture on the natural world, but without it being dogmatic in message.

A: It’s kind of like the sinking of a reality to make for history.

W:
Right. And the way that – I’ve said this in almost every interview I’ve been in – Oscar Wilde says it in Dorian Gray is that nature imitates art, not vice-versa. He points it out in the idea of a landscape. You go out and everything’s confused in nature, not organized. The sky is uninteresting and so on. When nature imitates art though, then it becomes beautiful. I love that essay because it’s just so against the grain of everything we’re taught. I mean, it’s just perfect Oscar Wilde.

A: In tandem with that, it seems like your approach to making these pictures is also really appropriate. I mean, speaking for myself, growing up and seeing these 19th century Naturalist images for the first time, there was always a sense that it was both a reality and a fiction, specifically an image like Dürer’s rhino. I mean, I was never really certain what it looked like, whether this was some kind of weird artist’s manifestation or not. So there’s a mythic quality to all of these creatures regardless of whether it is precisely that creature.


W: Exactly. I’m interested in the two different things. I’m interested in coming at it from the human point of view but also coming at it from the animal point of view. Like this one, you’re seeing the animal, actually, not the artist’s manifestation, and the same is true here [pointing to Thurneysser’s Demon]. That’s the actual elk, not the demonic elk but the suffering elk. But in the other room there’s a bull, or an Orox, and in this case, this is the mythic – this is the Orox that never got to be an actual animal. It was a perfect victim of Wilde’s theory of art imposing itself on Nature.

So this is the same bull that you see in Lascaux, in the cave paintings. Really, the moment it came into existence people were making art about it. Then Julius Caesar witnessed it when he went to conquer Germany and said they were the most terrifying animals he’d ever seen. And so people were considered quite heroic for hunting them. Then the Germans took off on that. Polish princes kept these animals alive into the 16th century when they hunted them out of existence. But the interesting thing is that later the Nazis tried recreating the animal by breeding cattle that they thought would backbreed into this animal again.

A: God…

W:
And so the German brothers, the Heck brothers, that ran the zoo in Berlin were actually breeding Spanish fighting bulls and all these other different breeds together to try to create this. I mean it’s a six feet high at the shoulder…bull. I mean it’s our prehistoric bull. It doesn’t exist anymore. Now, when I painted it, I painted it from the Nazi’s point of view, putting all the historical baggage I could into it. So this isn’t what an Orox looks like really, it’ what the Heck brothers wanted it to look like. It’s what a racist biologist might want to create if he was trying to create something that was to glorify the German Third Reich.

So really the animal here becomes a symbol rather than an animal. Where say with the rhino, it’s a sympathetic portrait of a poor rhinoceros that has to be turned into this glorious Dürer creation – you know, like he was martyred for the art. I guess this guy is too [pointing to the bull]. But there’s no information on them. And I had to make rough conjectures of what they looked like. The best pictures we have of them are the cave paintings in Lascaux.

A: Wow, really? So the German history explains the German Romantic background.

W: Yeah, I had to get my Caspar Friedrich in there, along with a horrible execution ground and human remains scraped up. And this thing is charging around out of “the deep forest of the German imagination.”

A: Yeah, the image pulls your around that bend very nicely.

W:
Yeah, I felt like the Nazis would love this thing. So in Polish it’s called Tur, and in German it’s called Orox, and it says that ignorant people call it bison. It’s actually in the first person. So he’s saying: “In Poland they call me Tur, the Germans call me Orox, but ignorant people call me bison.” Which is great. I love that. I actually found this on an old wood cut that had this written on it along the top. So I thought how fantastic. In his own words, “don’t call me the wrong name!” So it all fit, you know?


 Walton Ford
  Tur, 2007
 watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper
 Panel 1 framed: 98 x 62 1/2 inches; 248.9 x 158.8 cm
 Panel 2 framed: 98 x 38 1/2 inches; 248.9 x 97.8 cm
 Panel 3 framed: 98 x 62 1/2 inches; 248.9 x 158.8 cm
 courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery
 
A: Yeah, it’s a wonderful image.


W:
Thank you. So yeah those are the two different approaches in that sense when you say it’s hard to pigeon-hole the work. I did start off to realize I can pigeon-hole these two modes where I don’t care at all about the natural history of the animal, well, I mean to some degree. I mean, he’s life size, and it’s as close as you could get to reconstructing him, but basically I’m painting a Nazi fever-dream of what these things should be like. What formed the German character is in the forest killing Orox. And we even frightened Caesar with this holding up the cup that was made out of his horn. I mean this is the animal we’re talking about. Oh, and it’s Prehistoric.

Or, I take an animal that’s been sort of pigeon-holed by the culture and in the work it gets to be an actual animal, gets to show us itself. Like these bears. [pointing to Bears falling]. They’re not symbols of anything, they’re just bears suffering in a hunt. But this is a complete symbol, that’s not a real tiger [pointing to Hyrcania]. So there are two different approaches.

A: So the story with this [Hyrcania] is that this Persian stole the tiger’s cub?


W: Well, not really. It’s funny really. This is perfect though – this is like George Bush or something. This is like Westerners who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, talking about the Levant. It’s from a 13th Century European bestiary, and so they’re going down the list of animals. So they get to the tiger, and they say “These live in Hyrcania…” which is now Persia, which is now Iran. I was like, whoah. That’s heavy right away. And then he says, “And if one wants to steal one, a cub, the way one does this is by going to the lair, stealing the cub, fleeing on a horse, and when the female tiger is chasing you, you throw these reflective balls over your shoulder. It says, “glass balls.” When she sees her reflection in the balls, she’ll think it’s her cub and stop, and start to nurse or cuddle. Then she’ll realize that she’s been fooled, but you’ll have gained enough distance. So she redoubles her efforts, and so you continue to do it until you lose her. And I thought, this is perfect…because what are they afraid of in a place like Iran right now if not that we’re going to steal their young? That the youth is going to be seduced. So I made it so the guy is escaping to the west with the cub.

And she’s left with rather than her cub, which she wanted to be a reflection of her culture and of her, she’s left with a ball. And the rage is on her face, like “Ergh… this is the last straw, the end of your trickster bullshit!” I thought about the cruelty of the story being this sort of fanciful European idea of what you do when you’re a Persian – you hunt tigers. It just seemed like a good lock for the situation we’re in, you know? (laughing)

And, then I thought, well what kind of tiger lives in Persia, and with more research I found out that it’s the Persian tiger – and it’s extinct! And again, how perfect! It’s an extinct subspecies of tiger that had a lot of fur growing on its belly [now referring to tiger in the painting] and this is the size and shape of it and it’s different than any other tiger. It was one of the largest tigers.

A:
So can I assume that these flowers also have significance?


W: Yeah, well if you look at Persian miniatures and look at photos of modern Persia in the spring, they’re the same. There are so many almond trees and pear trees and they all come into bloom at once, and it’s absolutely beautiful. And so there’s really a time of year where for all the world, the landscape there looks like a Persian miniature.

But my secret is, never ever, ever would I paint a faux-Persian miniature. I don’t go into that, like the way, say that Francesco Clemente’s comfortable making Indian miniatures of his own dreamscapes. I like to speak in my own culture. I don’t like to pretend that I can come from that other point of view, because I don’t have it. Even if the work is influenced by Persian miniatures, it’s going to look like a Westerner painted it, a Western Natural History artist.

A: And in talking about what one has cultural ownership of, it seems that your work already complicates “ownership” since this kind of image-making is really borrowed from these earlier Naturalists.

W: Absolutely. But somehow I still feel like I own that language.

A: Exactly. That’s the other part of it. You look at these and you know, this is Walton Ford.

W:
Right, but it’s not only that, it’s my family’s background. They’re from the South, and they were all sportsman, and they like hunting and fishing and all this kind of stuff and this kind of imagery was always in the house. I grew up with the stuff the same way Loretta Lynn grew up with banjo music. You know what I mean? And I never had any problem with it. I’m fluent with it, so it doesn’t feel like I have to make a reach. It’s a weird thing, all these ideas about authenticity, but sometimes I do think they’re really important.

Like the town I live in in New England, the kids are into hip-hop but it’s this beautiful little New England village, and the language coming out of Compton…feels weird there. But, contrary to that, when I was growing up in the suburbs and I was listening to the Ramones, they were speaking my language – like they were talking about sniffing glue in this faux-British invasion style with this punk/pre-punk attitude, and I was like, that’s me. That’s who I am and how I feel, like a juvenile delinquent.

I do think you can get closer to who you are, and that makes the art better. It’s harder for those kids in New England to assume the 50 Cent persona than it was for me assume a Ramones-like persona or feeling. So I do think about that and feel comfortable with it. I mean, I think you can got outside yourself and be an actor or a performer and make yourself into whatever you want as an artist, that’s fine, but I like doing it like this – where it fits.

A:
When did you move to New York?


W:
Actually, in 1982. Into Williamsburg, and it wasn’t a trendy neighborhood at all in those days. It was a cool time to be in the city, but a very terrible time to try to put my ideas about art out there. There was just an entirely different thing going on with the whole East Village scene and Keith Haring and Basquiat…I had nothing to do with that, I mean except for being at the same parties with some of those people. I mean, I’d go home and paint paintings that looked like historical objects.

A: And so what was your participation in the Art World in those days?

W: I showed up in ’82 and started getting a little bit of exposure in the 90s, early 90s. One or two shows. There wasn’t really anything happening for the other time. I was a late bloomer, slow to come to any idea about what I was going to make.


 Walton Ford
 Scipio and the Bear, 2007
 watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper
 59 1/2 x 119 1/2 inches
 151.1 x 303.5 cm
 courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

A:
I guess now you have the luxury of being both in the Art World and kind of outside it.


W: Yeah. There is a bit of that. I’ve always loved artists that were out on a little limb. Even weird ones, Richard Dadd, this fairy painter, or even Edward Lear. I mean, they’re not important artists in the canon of how Art History likes to construct hierarchies, but I went to RISD and studied in Italy and… well I got the canon, but there was nothing I had to add to that, like moving it all forward. So I just didn’t even think about it. I sort of divorced myself from that kind of thinking, that I had to be pushing everything forward.

A: Yeah. When I think about your work it’s kind of like there’s this stream of Art History and you’re on the side of it and whenever you need to scoop something out of it, it’s there.

W:
Haha, right. And a lot of artists do that. Guys like Matthew Barney and John Currin, and Mark Tansey. So it’s not like I feel like I discovered something even along the lines of a new kind of strategy, except, what I feel like I do uniquely have, and have a unique connection to, is this language of the Natural History artist that I really absorbed in a very deep way. And I do feel that there’s nobody that can follow me down that path, at least now.

You know, there are some artists that are incredibly resonant. Their art really changes everything, and I always knew that I was never going to be that kind of artist. It’s the difference between someone like Bob Dylan and a band like The Flaming Groovies – you know, they have like maybe two or three good songs. But when I make a mix, I’m not going to put the Bob Dylan songs on there because everybody does, but I’m going to put The Flaming Groovies on there! But it seems like everybody does that now. You want to put a Gnarls Barkley song on there? Not Crazy! I’m going to put one off the latest record that no one’s heard. That’s really the way we think now: Look, look, look! Look at the thing that isn’t celebrated! That’s what’s really interesting! And I think I really just insisted on being that kind of artist because it was the only thing that was accessible. And you read about people like Picasso and they arrive in Paris and they say, “I’m going to change the fucking world!” and you think…how do you even get there..? I have no concept of that kind of artist. I have no clue. Also instead I never gave it a thought. I’m even in awe of people like Matthew Barney. Whether he’s going to be in the history books forever doesn’t matter to me or to him I’m sure, but the level of ambition and the feeling of actually pushing things to the next level…I have no idea of what’s that like.

A: Well, considering what we’ve been mentioning about contemporary art, I wanted to ask you about something I’ve been thinking about and then I’ll wrap this up. To my mind, there’s no plain historical trajectory where we can see that this is the next thing and it seems that this historical fracture has lent new significance to the artist’s signature, where you can identify a Barney or a Kapoor. I wanted to know how you feel about the artist’s signature.

W:
Well it’s weird because I co-opted so much. It’s sort of like when Tom Waits sued the potato chip people for using his voice. They had a tiger that sang kind of like Tom Waits, but I thought to myself, but Tom Waits kinda sings like Captain Beefheart, and Captain Beefheart sings like so and so….And he won…Because they did really do a pseudo-Tom Waits! (laughs) But thinking about my work, I mean, these are just kind of like faux Audobons. I mean, I don’t have a style, only that these are unprecedented in scale and in what they say. It’s really more like a project, like some of the things that Komar & Melamid made over the years, where they just make a Stalinist looking picture to talk about Stalinism – it’s a strategy to fit the method.

One of the very first pieces of criticism that was written about my work was written by Peter Schjeldahl and he was talking exactly about what you’re saying, but saying it very, very early on – that there’s no vertical construction anymore. There’s no pyramid with say Andy Warhol at the top. It’s completely horizontal and that the art stars, such as they are, are like real stars up in the firmament – none of them are very bright, none of them are really very brilliant, but they have their place and when you look at it all it’s just overwhelming. I thought he was making a good point, that it was a lot broader and more democratic. In a negative way, you could say it’s a mile wide and an inch deep, but I don’t think that’s true because I think that the artists gets really deep with what they’re specifically doing, into these weird little areas and these bizarre eccentric paths.

Our conversation eventually winded down once we hit on the other random topics like the internet and just how great Walton really is. Kidding aside, however, Mr. Ford was extraordinarily generous with his time and thoughts. It was a pleasure speaking with him and a pleasure to go through his exhibition with him as a guide.


Ajay Kurian is an artist and writer living in New York City.
e-mail: ajaygkurian@gmail.com

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