Does the Monster Grow Up?
A recent New York Times headline about waning American influence in the context of the G20 summit caught my eye the same day I saw the Walton Ford show at Kasmin. Somehow I was surprised that we were admitting on the front page the long obvious fact that decreased US leverage entails a prudent policy shift away from Bush’s unilateralism. “We can’t write checks the way that we once could; we can’t deploy troops in the way that we once did,” said David J. Rothkopf. The spectacle of a mighty monster, running the emotional gamut from fury to anguished grief and maybe now some acceptance, pretty much describes both post 9-11 US policy and the sight we encounter upon walking into Paul Kasmin gallery.
The inherent delicacy and additive nature of watercolor are completely at odds with the massive, nine by twelve feet, scale of the work, which corresponds to the 1933 crank operated Kong head. Once laid down, a mark cannot be retracted. A common-sensical way of proceeding from the general to specific doesn’t work the way it would in oil or acrylic. Watercolor requires much greater power of foresight since no false steps are allowed. Not only does watercolor resist such an enormous scale, but its slowness and delicacy are in sharpest contrast to the subject matter–in this case, a monster capable of enormous speed, force, and unbridled spontaneity. We might expect a brash impastoed oil; but this Audobonesque 19c naturalist watercolor style expresses patience, honesty, and humility in the attempt to accurately fix and portray nature, the catch being that this is always dead nature. Audobon, with whom Ford has a long complicated admiring-despairing relationship, traveled with paintbox and gun. The story of Kong, like that of Audobon’s natural subjects, is also on one level the story of capture, exploitation and ultimate sacrifice.
The virtuoso painting which is fresh and clear close-up, also convinces emotionally. We feel for the beast. The back story–not in the gallery press but repeated everywhere else–concerns the artist’s recent divorce and his father’s death. Ford says he wanted to paint King Kong for fifteen years, but until now hadn’t fully experienced the anguish of being “unable to have what you really want, to have the thing you love.” “The idea was to give this monster the chance to grieve properly, to provide a real resolution to heartbreak.” The three paintings progress from left to right, from grief to rage, and finally to acceptance according to Ford. I have my doubts about total acceptance while bloody drool still seeps out of Kong’s mouth.
But aside from Ford’s explicit identification with the beast’s misfortune and grief, as an artist, he must also be fascinated by the dangerous and transformative relationship with beauty. King Kong the film famously begins with a proverb: “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” It ends with, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” The beast/artist captured by greedy New York showbiz adventurers, surrenders to beauty and love, risks his masculinity, is perhaps destroyed, or learns to sublimate in the task of art-making, which is to surrender another kind of supremely demanding beauty.
How odd, too, that the twin towers were the 1977 site of Kong’s murder, or the great sacrificial act in which he dies trying to save beauty–transformed in the act from beast to human.