It’s a sort of attraction/repulsion thing, beautiful to begin with until you notice that some sort of horrible violence is about to happen, or is in the middle of happening.
Gagosian is pleased to present Calafia, new watercolor paintings by Walton Ford. This is his first exhibition with the gallery.
Ford’s work explores where natural history and human culture intersect. His large-scale, empirically precise, and highly detailed paintings consider the drama and history of animals as they exist in the human imagination, revealing the deeply intertwined relationships between nature and civilization. Using the visual language and medium of nineteenth-century naturalist illustrators such as John James Audubon, Ford masters the aesthetics of scientific truth only to amplify and subvert them, creating provocative and sometimes fanciful narratives out of facts.
Calafia comprises a new series of epic paintings in which Ford depicts California through an amalgam of its myths, legends, and folklore. In a sixteenth-century novel, Las sergas de Esplandían (The Adventures of Esplandian), the Castilian author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo wrote of a fictitious island inhabited by enormous flying griffins. On this island lived a tribe of Amazons, ruled by a warrior queen named Calafia. When the Spanish sailed up the western coast of North America, they named the land after this same imaginary island they had read about—thus fiction became history.
Echoing this process, in which fantasy makes its way into the landscape of reality, Ford creates various creatures, both real and invented, in the Californian image-scape, using his characteristic meticulous rendering. In Grifo de California (2017), a hybrid creature sits in a clearing at the top of a mountain, evidently endangered by human encroachment. Instead of the griffin traditionally depicted in European art and fantasy, which is half-lion, half-eagle, Ford creates a “New World” griffin by merging species native to California; he combines the lower body of a mountain lion with the talons, beak, and blue-black shimmering feathers of the critically endangered California condor, the largest North American land bird. In a ten-by-five-foot watercolor, the iconic MGM studio lion is reimagined in the role of a decadent movie star, lolling by the edge of a swimming pool. In the background, warm light shines from glass windows typical of modernist Los Angeles architecture; on the lower left, the MGM slogan—“Ars gratia artis,” or “art for art’s sake”—is inscribed, further satirizing the human/animal relation. The vast triptych La Brea (2016) depicts the famed tar pits, evoking a billboard for a blockbuster movie. Prehistoric animals rise from the mysterious black tar, emerging from the pits to eerily make their way across the landscape.
The use of watercolor on this scale is rare, and the panoramic format of Ford’s epic works imparts a heightened cinematic drama to his skills as a draftsman. Each painting encourages contemplation from both near and far: the composition in its entirety requires viewing at a distance, while at close range, the minutiae form intricate, engrossing patterns. Blending historical realism with fantasy worthy of the silver screen, Ford composes complex visual eulogies to the anthropocentric world.
Gagosian Quarterly Talks
Walton Ford and Irving Blum
Walton Ford sat down with legendary art dealer Irving Blum at Gagosian Beverly Hills to discuss his latest exhibition, Calafia.
King of the Jungle
Walton Ford’s most recent paintings focus on the history of California through fantastical interpretations of humanity and its encounters with animal life.