Funny Memories from an Impending Doom.

Walton Ford (American, born 1960), The Sensorium, 2003, Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper, 152.9 x 302.3 cm. Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

They are so big!

These watercolour paintings, I mean. That’s the first impression I get from them. Their sheer size. Oh it does matter, it really does! It’s partly the reason why I had trouble appreciating them from the photos and the posters I’ve seen all through the city: the proportions are missing; the minutely detailed panorama opening up in front of me now, on vast expansions of watercolour paper. The 19th century travel book, or nature study, aesthetic is obvious from the start. So are the stars of the show, the birds and the mammals. The details creep up to startle me as I look closer.

“Bestiarium,” a small, temporary exhibition of works by one called Walton Ford. A truer name for the show than I can initially fathom. It’s like pages from a giant’s diary have been torn out and miraculously stuck onto the museum walls. And how exquisitely crafted the illustrations on these pages! Everything about them is historical. The beasts are the centerpiece of each huge frame. Things look lopsided from the very first glance, though… The animals seem trapped in a completely human context, just a moment before a horrible death strikes them down because of it. The marks of human civilization crowd all around them (objects and contraptions, a skull, the legs of a corpse, burning cities) all of them colonial in origin, self indulgent, sadistic and futile in function. The victims are in close up, the perpetrators only hinted at; protected by History and Achievement.

Texts and subtexts! Subtexts everywhere! My mind is alive with Ford’s messages! Colonialism and its contemporary counterparts are in the forefront, battling for supremacy over the other social commentaries that his allegories lead me to. The irony is all-pervasive, the tragic comedy’s obvious. But I’m too distraught to even consider smiling. I come out of the hall in the end and walk round the other exhibits of the post-1960’s international art museum. Suddenly the best part of them seems soulless and – dare I use the word? – crap. So much for art making sense of the world. Most of the times it just helps you see the nonsense.

But do let’s laugh back at this lack of sense! Let’s gather up strength and organise an International Laugh Minute! During this one minute all the people in the world that feel oppressed by the ambiguous outcome of the 300,000 odd years of homo sapiens’s walking the earth, will just let it rip through their lungs and right into the unknown faces of the perpetrators of history (past, present and future history). And when this fails to work (as it inevitably will because it’s merely an one-off, peaceful and constructive expression of art and self-awareness, and therefore bears no threat or consequence to the faceless powers that be) let’s take another Minute to laugh at our own helplessness, laugh at ourselves for being such silly, perishable things. Then perhaps we could try it once more, somehow. And then another time, and another, still? Maybe we’re not as small as we think… This might be a plausible reaction, at least, when faced with the Great Ridiculous! One of a trillion plausible signs showing that “I” care.

In the following link Walton Ford speaks about his work in an amazing interview with PBS’s art:21