Walton Ford (b. 1960)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Walton Ford (b. 1960)

It Makes Me Think of that Awful Day

Walton Ford (b. 1960)
It Makes Me Think of that Awful Day
titled and inscribed '"It makes me think of that awful day..." 1933' (upper corners); signed with the artist's initials 'W.F.' (lower right)
watercolor, gouache, ink and graphite on paper mounted on aluminum
108 x 144 in. (274.3 x 365.8 cm.)
Executed in 2011.
Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. Indrisek, "Walton Ford," Whitewall Magazine, Winter 2012, pp. 18 and 104-105 (studio view illustrated in color).
B. Taschen, Walton Ford: Pancha Tantra, Cologne, 2015, p. 263 (illustrated in color).
New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Walton Ford: I Don't Like to Look at Him, Jack. It Makes Me Think of that Awful Day on the Island, November-December 2011.
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Lot Essay

Lauded for his masterful watercolors of darkly witty natural tableaus, Walton Ford translates the careful observation and archival instinct of 18th and 19th century naturalists into allegorical compositions that question humanity’s relationship with the animal kingdom. An immense image, It makes me think of that awful day was completed in 2011, the same year as Ford’s mid-career retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The central image in a series of three, each depicting an emotive King Kong in different stages of grief, this painting signals Ford’s subjective turn to the fantastical subjects of early 20th century cinema and a nod to his early ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. The work effectively builds upon the artist’s pieces that resemble the intricate tableaux of John James Audubon and other early naturalists, but instead extends a more focused eye toward the inner turmoil of the beast.

Rendered with Ford’s impeccable attention to detail, Kong’s gaping maw reveals monster movie canines that are strangely at odds with the emotive qualities of the great ape’s contorted face. Presented in a cropped format, the framing forces the viewer to hone in on the ape’s furrowed brow, gleaming eyes with tears streaming down his cheeks, and snarling mouth. More akin to a film still than a traditional portrait painting, Ford boldly references the 1933 RKO film that first brought the mighty denizen of Skull Island to the silver screen. Rather than rendering a naturalistic and anatomically accurate image of a gorilla, the artist chose to reproduce the same grotesque, exaggerated features employed by the prop crew of the creature feature. Completed in painstaking detail with gouache, watercolor, pencil, and ink on a single sheet of paper, the monumental rendition of King Kong surely elicits a reaction on the same scale as his first appearance to a shocked cinema audience.

Although not drawn directly from natural history books or the tradition of the naturalist illustrators, the cinematic subject is decidedly appropriate within Ford’s oeuvre. Drawing upon the discovery and subsequent conquering of the untouched natural world, King Kong is essentially a parable about humanity and its fear of the unknown. Finding the giant ape on Skull Island, the explorers subdue and enslave him for their own enjoyment rather than revel in his untamed beauty. This fear of the dark jungle and its mysterious inhabitants is at the heart of many early tales about apes and other creatures that lived under the dense forest canopy. Nineteenth century explorers often spun tall tales about how gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans would emerge from the forest only to carry off women in their clutches. King Kong and his enrapture with Fay Wray’s character, Ann Darrow, is the climax of this literary tradition as the plot moves from the primeval forest to the metropolitan skyline of New York. By focusing on the ape’s emotional state, Ford brings us something beyond the bestiary and delivers a heartfelt rendition of Kong coming to terms with humanity. Ford has since touched upon this subject more directly with his 2013 painting of an orangutan titled Anthroponosis—1975. This delicate rendering of the red ape is offset by a nude female figure accompanied by two other orangutans leading her from the forest. Revisiting this subject throughout his work, Ford impresses upon the viewer the ways in which history has shaped our view of nature.

The title of Ford’s primate portrait refers to Fay Wray’s line in the 1933 film. She bemoans to her human lover about the now-captured Kong, saying: “I don’t like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island.” The object of Kong’s desire has forsaken him and he is left chained and alone in a foreign land. This abandonment leads to various stages of grief and rage, the latter of which is so deftly depicted in It makes me think of that awful day. “Walton Ford is one of the most unmodern of modern painters—a premodernist, trying to reconnect us to a rustic, rough land that had many more animals in it, and many more animals known by the people nearby, than the barren cities and suburbs where most of us now live. Audubon, and others, may have found a home in a place like this, but didn’t understand it, or see it, with Ford’s compelling starkness,” (B. Buford, “Field Studies, Walton Ford’s Bestiary,” Walton Ford, Pancha Tantra, Cologne, 2003, p. 11). The story of Kong as depicted by Ford is a perfect melding of the inherent wildness of the animal kingdom and the dystopian despair of the urban jungle. We see ourselves in the monster as we yearn for the freedom of the mysterious island, but are continuously pulled back to the daily grind.

Ford’s piece acts as a kind of memorial to extinct species and the gradual loss of the unknown as the mysteries of the dark jungles and deep seas are brought out into the light. “My work reacts to the history of natural history and the history of people’s interactions with animals and other cultures and things like that. And our way of remembering natural history events and creatures that are now extinct” (W. Ford, quoted in W. Hanley, “Walton Ford,” Blouin ArtInfo, November 2007). This caging and cataloguing of the natural world was at the core of natural science during the Enlightenment, something that can be seen in Audubon’s works and pieces like Charles Wilson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum (1822). Placing taxidermized specimens in glass boxes, creating intricate renderings of exotic species, and restraining unadulterated wildlife for examination and observation speaks to the human duality of curiosity and fear. The people are afraid of the ape, but they cannot help but want to study it. Ford’s painting alludes to this by inviting the viewer in with exquisite details but at the same time confronting them with a truly terrifying visage.

Although Ford’s works rarely include human figures, the effects of encroaching humanity are always just below the surface. These are not idyllic tableaux of animals living in harmonious nature. Rather, in works like It makes me think of that awful day, the beasts react to their subjugation, displacement, or enslavement at the hands of their human oppressors. Although bereft of the trappings of society and diorama-like compositions that have become so much a part of Ford’s style, this intimate portrait of King Kong in the throes of anguish speaks to his sudden and involuntary collision with human society, human cruelty, and above all, human love.

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