Three giant—let’s call them “life-sized”—head and shoulders portraits of King Kong fill the first room of Walton Ford’s show of watercolors “I Don’t Like to Look at Him Jack. It Makes Me Think of That Awful Day on the Island” at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. At left, below the handwritten line “I don’t like to look at him, Jack,” a startled-looking Kong begins to cry (pictured below). The center painting (pictured above) shows an angry Kong crying with his mouth open, baring fierce fangs and roaring. “It makes me think of that awful day,” is written at the top. The right painting shows the movie ape with tears falling from his eyes, drool spewing from his nose, and bloody drool dripping from his closed mouth. In the previous paintings, Kong looked us in the eye; now wounded, he looks away.
Ford, who lives in West Barrington, Massachusetts, has made the central subject of his career humanity’s conquest and colonization of the earth’s wilds, and the tragedies that seem to inevitably occur when people and animals meet.
The original 1933 movie “King Kong” tells of a movie crew sailing to a wild, prehistoric island to film a project, but there black “savages” kidnap the project’s actress (played by Fay Wray) to sacrifice her to the giant ape. However Kong becomes enamored by the woman and carries her off. The movie men recover the actress and in the process capture Kong, and ship him to New York. There they put him on public exhibit, but he escapes, grabs the actress, and climbs the Empire State Building. Military planes shoot at him until the great ape falls to his death.
Ford’s paintings are monumental, the scale of 18th and 19th century Western history painting—or movie screens. And they continue Ford’s signature vivid realism, which imitates the 19th century natural history paintings of John James Audubon, complete with faux aging. These are the largest watercolors Ford has painted to date, measuring 9 by 12 feet on a single sheet of paper. They aren’t particularly finely painted. Their power is their awesome scale physically and psychologically confronting you. But Kong makes a curious subject. Ford paints him as he was depicted in the 1933 movie—mainly via a stop-motion animated puppet. Kong is a cartoon of an ape (and perhaps of blackface?). His rubbery features give him the look of a sad clown. Which adds a curiously comedic tone to the tragic tale of the destruction of a magnificent beast.
The Kong series is accompanied by a six smaller watercolors (pictured above) depicting monkeys attacking and killing a parrot in the beautiful light of sunset. They’re inspired by Audubon’s childhood recollection of his mother’s pet monkey attacking one of her parrots. In Audubon’s memoir, he recalled the monkey “walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it with unnatural composure. … the monkey was forever afterward chained.” They’re fine paintings, but the subject is sensational—and made more so by Ford’s depiction, which includes the monkey ejaculating amidst the killing.
Walton Ford “I Don’t Like to Look at Him Jack. It Makes Me Think of That Awful Day on the Island,” Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Ave., New York, New York, Nov. 3 to Dec. 23, 2011.