November 2–December 16, 2017
This exhibition of a small number of massive new paintings represents a return to form for this vital and beloved contemporary master. Technically, the depth, richness and precision of Ford’s fantastical realism represents the pinnacle for watercolor on paper—even more impressive at his trademark large scale, comfortably in the 5 x 10-foot range and beyond. The technique is so strong, it’s almost like he’s showing off. When he deploys his skills in the service of a sweeping, symbol-rich narrative such as the one which inspired Calafia—belonging to the past but particularly rife with allegorical references to the modern era—the total effect is epic. The storyline samples the civic and folkloric history of early colonialist incursions into the territories that would later become California. The compositions explore the emotional qualities of that mythological time and this real place, through the eyes of the region’s great beasts. Ford tells the story of each animal, its life and times, its political and family dramas, its desires, appetites, fears and battles fought—both against other creatures and increasingly against the incursions of men.
From the animal’s point of view, much like native occupants and undisturbed lands, colonialism is not heroic, it’s a problem. By using the visual language of 19th-century naturalist illustrators such as John James Audubon and John Gould, Ford signals a pointedly ironic allegiance to a previous era of scientific inquiry and field research at its peak. Nowhere is this multi-level collision more intensely expressed than in La Madre (2017, watercolor, gouache and ink on paper, 108 x 144 inches). The bear, its binding ropes snapped, its anger awakened, emerges from a high-up cave to witness men hunting a bear in the distant valley below. Her oneness with the mountains, like her rest, is disturbed and her captivity is ending in the most explosive, tragic fashion. In two pieces, Grifo de California (60 x 83 inches) and Isla de California (108 x 144 inches) we see the fabled griffin, a half vulture/dragon, half mountain lion creature, once associated with the area and bearing a striking resemblance to a condor, attempting to negotiate anachronistic obstacles like electric wires strung through a canyon. In the most modern, the MGM lion nurses a poolside hangover as Ars Gratia Artis (60 x 120 inches) offers a cautionary peek into the “future” of these wild lands.