Friday, November 24, 2006

Further To Walton Ford

I love The New York Times. My grandfather was a prominent reporter and, subsequently, a bureau chief. He covered the arrival of Ameila Earhardt in Ireland after her historic transatlantic flight.

So I feel a perverse sense of pride when I say only The Times could write a review like this of the Walton Ford show I mentioned two days ago. Ergo:

With his prodigious skills as an illustrator, the naturalist artist Walton Ford has, over a relatively short time, produced a remarkable, at times repetitious but deeply reflective group of works on themes like colonialism, the tradition of naturalist illustration and the existence of animal species.

The present show assembles more than 50 of his large-scale watercolors of birds, animals, snakes and lushly exotic flora, all produced since the early 1990s. Combining pathos and wit, artifice and honesty, they frequently depict moments in which a wild animal encounters human culture, often to its detriment.

Sometimes the threat is overt, as in pictures of animals and birds roped or wounded; in other images you merely sense that some horrible violence has occurred, or is about to happen. In “Thanh Hoang” (1997), a tiger has burst his bonds of captivity and is seen fleeing away into the forest, his tail flesh grazed and exposed and surrounded by buzzing flies. In “November 1864” (2005), an immense, angry-looking wild boar roars as its habitat burns.

Though wonderfully lucid and dramatic, the moralizing of these images can become a little tedious, as in “Dirty Dick Burton’s Aide de Camp” (2002), in which a monkey represents Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer, who apparently kept primates in his house in an effort to learn their language. The illustrator John James Audubon also comes in for some censure, for his practice of trapping and killing animals to study them; in one image he lies fallen in the snow as a golden eagle flies away, a trap still attached to its leg.

But bashing old-school naturalists and scientists is not the only — or chief — preoccupation of this popular, prolific artist. He also imparts an environmental message, couched in terms of a lament for the irreversible loss when a sense of morality does not govern the treatment of animals.
Reviews like this are why you should just go see the shows and forget what they say in the newspapers. In this case, I think the reviewer missed the boat completely. How he missed it is a topic for another day, for I am celebrating Black Friday by going to see "Copying Beethoven", which I hear is wonderful.


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