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Fordism: WALTON FORD Considers What Makes America Great: Highlights from Issue 28: 20 Interviews

Highlights from Issue 28: 20 Interviews

Image courtesy of the Artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery

Artwork: WALTON FORD / Photo credit: ADAM REICH


Friday, December 15, 2006

By Leopold Froehlich

With a major show now open at the Brooklyn Museum, painter Walton Ford is getting the recognition he deserves. Drawing inspiration from the work of John James Audubon's Birds of America, Ford explicates the excesses of colonialism, cultural imperatives and biological futility. His works, while defiantly historicist, are rarely predictable. What interests the artist are the psychological motives that define our culture. Ford thrives on folly, which remains in abundant supply in 21st century America. Born in Larchmont, New York in 1960, Ford is a 1982 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He lives in western Massachusetts.


Stop Smiling: What are you up to?

Walton Ford: I just found something amazing on YouTube, a clip of Leadbelly singing ?Pick a Bale of Cotton.? It?s really him, not some fucking actor. I don?t know when they filmed it. I didn?t think they would have anything by him. I?ve been looking up lots of music, like Captain Beefheart.

SS: There?s a great video of Captain Beefheart rehearsing his band.

WF: There?s an unbelievable 11-minute performance from 1971 that has at least three different songs. It shows the real working method of those guys, because you can?t figure out from listening to Trout Mask Replica how the fuck it was made.

SS: I heard that drummer John Drumbo French said Beefheart once taped a faucet dripping in his kitchen and brought it into him and said, ?I want you to play this.?

WF: Yeah, he was always doing that shit. One of the best Mojo interviews ever was when Bono gets him on the phone and tries to interview him. Bono is all sincere and pathetic and Beefheart keeps interrupting with one after another, like: ?Have you ever seen a sunfish? It?s like a giant head that floats in the water. You should get your people to get one.? That kind of thing.

SS: A sunfish would do Bono good.

WF: The way Beefheart talks, you know, is fucking unbelievable. I remember him saying he learned how to play the harmonica when he was a kid by sticking it out the window when the car was driving really fast.

SS: I liked his renunciation of music. He said he was tired of pop music and that it had become like a goldfish living on its own excreta.

WF: He?s amazing. But the videos go on and on. I?ll look up some whacko like Todd Rundgren. There?s all this amazing shit that goes back to the Nazz. You get sucked in. The Faces, Rod Stewart and the Faces. The best clip I?ve ever found is Tom Jones and Sly Stone doing a duet on the Tom Jones Show of ?Everyday People.?

SS: Let?s talk business. With our furious killing for sport, and our extraordinary yet almost indifferent cruelty, Americans have been good haters for 300 years. Why is this?

WF: I always assumed that when our actual narrative begins with stealing somebody?s land and trying to wipe out their culture, we have to have a certain enemy we can set up to allow our narrative to appear benign. You need a creation myth that paints all of it as a sort of story ? that it?s a search for liberty, a search for freedom ? rather than what is actually is. Our history begins right off with war and conquest and taking, just basically stealing. You have a problem with your creation myth and you have to fix it. It makes sense that we?ve been good haters, as you put it, for 300 years, because we have to put it on someone else. Just as you?re most furious when you?re caught in something you?ve done wrong. The great way to defend yourself is to go on the attack.

SS: Maybe that?s why we shoot birds just for the hell of it or blow up fish with dynamite. Here?s a quote from Schopenhauer: ?In Christian ethics, animals are seen as mere things. They can therefore be used for vivisection, hunting, coursing, bullfights and horse races, and can be whipped to death as they struggle along with their heavy carts of stone. Shame on such a morality that fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing and shines forth with inscrutable significance from all eyes that see the sun.? Does Christianity encourage this disregard for nature? Does it encourage us to renounce the worldly well-being of subsequent generations?

WF: Perhaps it goes deeper, into a western tradition that pre-dates the founding of Christianity. The pagan Romans loved the arena and couldn?t think of anything more fun than to put a bunch of animals together to rip each other apart. Consider the North African lion. It?s enormous and magnificent. The Romans basically poached the hell out of it because it was such a magnificent animal to bring into the ring and throw Christians to. The lion was progressively wiped out by the great games in the arena, but it took the French really going into Algeria to wipe out the last strongholds of the animal. You have a cruelty or indifference that stretches over millennia. So you?re stuck with a tradition that?s hard to nail down. It?s obviously a way we?ve figured out a long time ago to have fun. It isn?t unique to Christians. Some of the cruelest moments I?ve ever witnessed being afflicted on animals were in Asia. An animal that we revere, like a puppy dog, is viewed as a scavenging, repulsive, unclean creature in many cultures there. People will beat a dog to death with a stick at the drop of a hat and you?ll watch it and you?ll think, That was interesting: they just dashed that dog?s brains out. And there are people in London who will coddle a dog as if it?s a lover. I have a book written by E.P. Evans called Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, which was published in 1906. It documents a western tradition that embraces animal executions, animals that were executed for devouring the holy wafer, animals condemned by the church for wiping out crops, plagues of locusts that holy men condemned. There are all these weird traditions connected with Christianity.

SS: The Franciscans looked at the animals as also being part of God?s dominion.

WF: There?s also a flip side to that where if you?re going to acknowledge that animals have souls, then you have to let them into heaven. There was a theological argument that began in medieval times about the nature of an animal. One of the answers was that you could imagine animals had demonic souls, that they were in possession ? not possessed by the devil ? of actual demonic souls and that those souls were redeemed by domestication. But the danger was always there that the animal would lapse back into its demonic nature and, for example, kick a farmer in the head, or even tempt a farmer to fornicate with it, so that in Connecticut Cotton Mather had a farmer named Potter executed. Potter had been caught by his wife confounding himself with a bitch and he was hanged, but they killed the dog and sow and all the animals first. This guy screwed all of his animals and they were all hanged before he was.

SS: We? refer to that as euthanized.

WF: Yeah, they were hanged from a tree. The idea was you have demons redeemed by domestication that can revert back to their demonic nature. That would explain why wild animals are our enemies and domestic ones are our friends. It gets us into the question of how we?ve separated ourselves from nature. Disney movies view nature that way.

SS: About Connecticut, P.T. Barnum had a man in Arabic dress plow his fields near Bridgeport with an elephant. They would plow four times a day, whenever the train passed by.

WF: I didn?t know that. In Barnum?s day there had been a rash of elephant executions, because elephants were fairly new to show businesses in the 19th and early 20th century. There was one in Coney Island that Edison electrocuted. There?s a famous clip of it probably on YouTube somewhere. A creepy piece of footage. I was able to find in the New York Public Library maybe a dozen elephants around that time that had been killed in the United States because they went into a cycle of behavior completely normal for them, when they go in musth. When they?re in musth, they become incredibly dangerous and can kill their keepers or stomp on people. In India, the tradition is to worship the elephant when he does that. The animal becomes a force of nature you almost have to revere. They?re considered more beautiful when they?re in musth than at any other time, but they?re very dangerous. There?s an acknowledgement among mahouts that it can kill you, but managing an elephant that?s killed 13 men is considered a great honor, whereas here the minute they kill somebody, they?re gone. There was an elephant in New York that went on a rampage recently and killed its keeper in the Central Park Zoo. They had to stuff him full of cyanide apples and shoot him in the head 15 or 20 times. He took days to die. The people who lived in the fancy apartment buildings facing Central Park complained about the moaning of the elephant in the zoo.

SS: A fighter jet could have taken him out in no time.

WF: Yeah. It was like King Kong. You bring this giant, fucked-up animal into New York City and when it goes went berserk people freak out.

SS: As Diogenes said: ?I pissed on the man who called me a dog. Why was he so surprised??

WF: There you go.

SS: We like it when animals go on rampages. The contemplation of man-eating tigers, elephants marauding through villages ? even the rhesus monkeys terrorizing government offices in Delhi ? brings us pleasure. While in the barrens of Kentucky, Audubon had his drawings devoured by mice.

WF: Yeah. I like stories like that.

SS: We aren?t concerned about what the world has lost in terms of Audubon?s art, we rejoice that the animals finally exact revenge on their human masters.

WF: That was the way we felt with Siegfried and Roy, when he was attacked. I did a painting about Carl Akeley, who put together the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History. He died of dysentery and was buried in the very spot portrayed in his gorilla diorama. It was his favorite place, according to him. His favorite place in the world was up in these volcanoes in the Congo and he was buried there. But they later found that his grave had been robbed and his skeleton was missing. I imagined the gorillas did it. Maybe they collected him right back. I like to think that.

SS: Why has Audubon?s work endured?

WF: Well, some of his work has endured and some of it is completely invisible. The part that has endured is the part I have no argument with ? and almost no one should. There?s a complete beauty about these things. He was making romantic images in the best sense, like Delacroix. There was a kind of Asian aesthetic to them as well. They looked like Japanese brush paintings or Chinese brush paintings, the way the space, the paper, becomes air. That?s quite beautiful. People do respond directly to them as aesthetic objects. The part of Audubon that hasn?t survived or even been illuminated is the sort of complicated character that comes out in his journals. You?re not aware of his violent nature, his compulsive lying, his crazy rantings he can get into, his jealousies. He was a truly magnetic and repulsive character at once. None of that gets out. There?s a sort of toothless aspect to his later photos, where he?s a bitter, confused, toothless old man sliding into senility up in Harlem. None of that is talked about. The peaceful images he created are very comforting. Adam Gopnik said they?re beautiful the way Shaker tables are beautiful. Those are celebrated, and justly so, but I don?t understand why we can?t know some of the stories that drove him. Like that story of his favorite parrot being strangled by his mother?s monkey when he was an infant. His father was a sea captain and brought all these exotic animals to France, where he was raised. His mother?s monkey strangled his favorite parrot, and he was horrified. Then, without further comment, he says that incident gave rise to his love of birds. That?s as Freudian as it gets ? it?s as weird as any story out of David Lynch. It?s like a dream sequence that nobody talks about. It?s not illuminated, so I?ve made paintings about things like that.

SS: He was a lunatic?

WF: He was nuttier than squirrel shit.

SS: The interesting thing is his relationship with his family ? his wife, his son.

WF: Yeah. His poor wife. He ditches her and he?s tutoring some sexy 16-year-old girl in a plantation down in Louisiana. To me that makes Audubon more interesting, not less, but I don?t know why it?s never brought up. He?s part of this benign creation myth we try to create to cover up the crimes that are more interesting to talk about. It makes me like him and hate him more. It?s like dealing with people who are deliberately complicated and who allow you to like them for that, people like Luis Bunuel or Werner Herzog or Klaus Kinski. Those are all film guys, but they?re interested in creating a myth that?s more complicated.

SS: Maybe such myths are more plausible.

WF: Yeah, it?s still a myth, but it?s sort of a raging myth. For some reason we didn?t let Audubon have his raging, lunatic myth, which I?m not even sure he would be pleased with. I think he was more of an artist that would show up in polite European society with bear grease in his hair and a buckskin outfit on. He was one of the first truly extravagant American artists to make up his own mythology that was probably more interesting than the one they?ve hoisted on everybody.

SS: I guess he was like Daniel Boone. The California poet Joaquin Miller was like that. He would show up at the tables in London and eat with his Bowie knife. He put on a show in London wearing his buckskin.

WF: Yeah, that?s what Audubon was doing in the 1830s and 1840s.

SS: That should make us proud to be Americans. The other stuff makes us ashamed to be an American.

WF: Yeah, the culture is the stuff I?m proud of ? all that stuff Greil Marcus calls the weird America. I?m all for that. That makes me happy. Those are the things I?m proud of.

SS: History is the kiss of death in our culture. People will turn off anything associated with it. Yet much of your work seems to rely on at least the context of history. Do people have difficulty understanding your work? Do they ask what it?s about?

WF: Yeah, people do ask. I give a lot of information in my work. Because I?m working with forms familiar to most people through guys like Audubon. Audubon is by no means the only 19th century natural history artist. The tradition goes back a long way, and it usually does have something to do with conquest. Some of the natural history images I love most are part of the description of Egypt Napoleon put together after he invaded Egypt. He hired the best natural history artist imaginable, and in France the natural history museums have incredible volumes of the most beautiful specimens. There?s a great European tradition of natural history painting that in a lot of ways is superior to what Audubon was doing. But in this country at least, Audubon is the most familiar and one of the most popular American artists ever, so his work immediately strikes a chord with people. If there is a fear of history in the sort of ponderous history-book sense, I don?t think people notice it right away in my work. What is immediately recognizable and entertaining is the sort of connection my work has to extremely popular natural history imagery. People love to rip up old natural history books and frame the kind of imagery I draw upon. The seduction is important for me, but I was interested in using that visual language to talk about other things that have infected the imagery like a computer virus. When Audubon painted the passenger pigeon, he painted two of them cooing. There?s no evidence this was the most numerous bird on the planet. There?s no visual cue to let you know about the repulsiveness of this animal and the huge numbers they flew in and the sort of horror it would have been. That?s ridiculous. What the hell was he painting? He has some of the best written descriptions of the enormity of a flight of passenger pigeons that you?ve ever read ? where the shit is falling like snow, where you can?t hear the guns going off around you for the noise of the pigeons, and the wind from their wings is like a gale at sea. Giant branches break under their weight. When you don?t even hint at that in your art, what the hell are you painting? It felt to me like I had to paint that. Once I paint it, I want to layer it with my own ideas. I don?t just paint it as if I were a natural history artist. I painted passenger pigeons in such a way that they looked like they deserved to go extinct, that they are repulsive. That was the thing with passenger pigeons: If they were going to be that greedy and repulsive and that sex-obsessed, they could get rid of them.

SS: With duck-hunting they would have cannons in their boats. They didn?t even have to aim them, they could just shoot it up in the sky and the ducks would drop down.

WF: Exactly. That was the way the pole men operated in the pigeons. Fowlers went into the woods with poles. All they had to do is whack branches and it rained squabs. They were able to fill barrels with these things at pennies a pound. I mean, they were plowing passenger pigeons into the fields for fertilizer. It?s an incredible story. I don?t know why I wasn?t taught that in school.

SS: Corn was so abundant in Cincinnati that it was burned in stoves to keep warm. Spare ribs were dumped into the Ohio River because no one would bother to eat them.

WF: They called salmon Albany beef because there were so many salmon in the Hudson River. Workers went on strike because they were being fed salmon so much. That?s a world I?m interested in making pictures about.

SS: You said something about the repulsiveness of such abundance.

WF: Yeah, my idea in that piece was to give in to the fever dream of passenger pigeons and not to allow myself to be sanctimonious about their past.

SS: The mindless shooting of bison or caribou had to be a psychological reaction to their fecundity.

WF: Yeah. Imagine the ambivalence you would feel if you have this overwhelming abundance. Your flight is delayed for six days because passenger pigeons are flying over the airport. You can?t really live like that. There is this aspect of what they were confronted with that had no European precedent.

SS: In the struggle between Old World and New ? as Alfred Crosby notes in Ecological Imperialism ? the European almost always wins. Perhaps it was just luck that allowed Cortes to enlist Indians to defeat the Aztecs, or for white clover and bluegrass to usurp the indigenous biota of America. What if the European had received rather than granted smallpox onto a new population?

WF: I don?t know. Jared Diamond gets into those questions in Guns, Germs and Steel. He talks about the luck of the draw. It was a kind of geographical lottery that people hit. They had the kind of minerals they needed, they had the kind of interaction between cultures they needed. You wouldn?t have that in a place like Tasmania. Even with the diseases like smallpox. If you lived in London in 1660, you would have been exposed to pathogens from all over the world. Your immune system would be better suited to deal with smallpox than if you were isolated on an island in Polynesia. It?s an unfair lottery on one level, and when you combine that with the feeling of justified violence we were talking about before, you have a deadly combination for the rest of the planet. I don?t really know anything about botany or grasses or why those things take over. I had a botanist confront me over my plants and he gave me a little course on it. It turns out the best way to understand artistic anatomy for plants is to go back to Ruskin. Ruskin wrote extensively about plant anatomy in a way that was only for artists. This botanist at Smith said it was completely valid scientifically. Ruskin was dead on about how plants grow, hundreds of years before those things were discovered in science, which is interesting. He said, ?Get your Ruskin and study up and you won?t paint such fucked-up plants.? Ever since I?ve been trying to learn more about plants.

SS: Let?s end with a quote from Melville?s Confidence Man: ?At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois. At the formation of the state government, he was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reason for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects ? the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.? For some Americans, such sentiment endures. Do we still have people among us who have this sacred passion for destruction?

WF: That quote is interesting. A politician would never have a moral dilemma like that now. Today?s politician doesn?t have to choose between ambition and shooting at human beings.


Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors by Walton Ford at Brooklyn Museum, November 3, 2006 through January 28, 2007


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