Friday, August 3, 2007


-Originally posted Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last Sunday I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see an exhibition of Ron Mueck, who makes frighteningly lifelike sculptures of humans in very inhuman dimensions and bizarre poses. The Mueck exhibit was interesting and impressive, and clearly the major attraction at the museum--there was a long line to get in, and it was always hard to get an unobstructed view of the silicone statues. But for some reason another exhibit caught my eye, even though I had never heard of it and it didn't seem to be drawing as many people as Mueck's. It was called "Tigers of Wrath: Watercolors by Walton Ford," and the advertisement for it at the museum entrance made me think it was a group of naturalist paintings from the 19th century, like Audubon's watercolors of America's birds. Maybe it was this impression that I would be looking at something antique that interested me; or maybe reading Borges' Dreamtigers--as I had been doing, a chapter at a time at a friend's apartment, since I discovered it on her desk--triggered my interest in the paintings. It turns out Walton Ford is actually a contemporary artist, and his watercolors were done in the past fifteen or so years. But his style consciously imitates Audubon's naturalist illustrations, and his vision is not so far from Borges'. Each painting depicts a wild animal--tiger, leopard, wolf, the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar--in a 'natural' pose, and includes the animal's scientific name. But the apparent subject of each 'naturalist' study is also unwittingly tied into a larger human history that Ford implies through fragments of texts, allusions to legends, and glimpses of crumbling empires integrated into the portrait. For instance, in one group of paintings, Ford imagines the group of monkeys that belonged to Sir Richard Burton, a nineteenth century British military officer, explorer, and 'orientalist,' who supposedly spoke 29 languages, translated the Thousand and One Nights and Kama Sutra into English, and was considered one of the greatest fencers of his time. According to his wife's writings, Burton also at one point during his time in India kept about forty or so monkeys and was quite successful at learning their language, to the extent that he was able to compile a monkey dictionary. The dictionary was unfortunately lost in a fire.

Walton Ford graduated from the Rhode Island School of design in 1982. Last night a friend of mine who goes to RISD was in the city, so we hung out at a bar near my apartment that always has a big glass jar of unshelled peanuts and I told her about "Tigers of Wrath" and we ate peanuts.

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