Of the many odd jobs that have filled my days, one in particular stands out. An email I wrote to an editor and archivist at the Los Angeles Zoo describes the scope of work:
I am helping Walton Ford, a painter of animals, who is looking for photos of erect monkey penises. Not great apes. Large monkeys from Africa: mandrills, patas, mangabeys, etc. It has to do with a random encounter in 1868, in which the writer Guy de Maupassant helped save the poet Algernon Swinburne from drowning off the north coast of France. As it turns out, Swinburne and his lover kept an unidentified “large African monkey” as a sex slave, a monkey that Maupassant found hanged in a tree upon his second visit to Swinburne’s seaside cottage …
It goes on from there. Troubling as the account may be, I can report that I delivered some first-rate pictures of monkey cock, which Ford referenced in painting the scene inspired by Maupassant’s encounter with Swinburne. “When all else failed,” I might one day tell my grandchildren, “I could always fall back on my research skills in the simian boner category, thanks to that good egg Walton Ford.”
Ford has always been interested in painting allegories of original sins, lost truths, tragic consequences, raw deals, derelict suffering, bloodshed, and heartbreak. Typically, his subjects come to him from arcane literary and historical references—bizarre and unsettling passages from old books that conjure confounding, severe, and often erotically charged imagery.
If you look beyond the expert brushmanship, the ecstatic feast of his ultravivid watercolors, you will find yourself gazing at darkness and woe: distended underbellies, terror-stricken eyes, aroused predators, quivering prey tangled in flexed contortions. Tigers, bonobos, parrots, okapis, rhinos, fucking, killing, fiddling with contraptions—agonized and anthropomorphized beasts.
“What I’m doing with my paintings,” Ford says, “is building a sort of cultural history of the way animals live in the human imagination.”
In talking to Ford about his recent work, I sensed that he is looking inward more, and that he is less inclined to conceptualize his paintings as metaphoric puzzles. His latest paintings are closer to self-portraits (albeit in animal form). He embraces the raw ugliness of the past, whether it’s the ravages of colonialism on the natural world, recent events in his personal life (death, divorce, existential dread), or the choked-up grief of his childhood hero: Kong.
For nearly eighty years the Kong myth has endured, always ripe for interpretations that suit the day. The three film versions—the dark and tragic 1933 original by adventurers and filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis eco-friendly rethink (in which the Twin Towers famously replace the Empire State Building), and Peter Jackson’s 2005 digital remake with a graft of 21st-century zeitgeist added to make us feel good about our progress—reflect a dizzying array of political, racial, and gender issues. But the 1933 movie is the only one that means anything to Ford.
For starters, it’s no wonder that a film about an angry unloved monster comes along in the wake of a stock market crash and the great fall of the Roaring Twenties. King Kong had a sold-out premiere at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater (at a whopping 75 cents a ticket) just days after FDR came into office proclaiming, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Of course, fear was everywhere, especially in the conservative ranks of Kong’s Hollywood studio, RKO Pictures, where the bigwigs were vocally skeptical of the new president and his New Deal. The film seems to portend the chaos and ruin that the right feared a reckless Roosevelt would bring to America.
By some Depression-era measures, Kong likely stood for wild liberal hope, a dark mass of taxes and bleeding-heart intentions coming to destroy civilization. And Kong would have made a nice commie poster child. A symbol of the angry masses breaking free of the chains of repression and starting a violent revolution of … what … subway smashing? Skyscraper peeping? Lady loving?
Black Americans might have seen some of their history in the Kong saga, too. After all, he was forcefully taken from his home, put in chains and made to work for free for his white captors. Remember, the Ku Klux Klan was having its heyday in the twenties and thirties. To them, Kong could have represented the threat of the black male in all his angry superpotency, ready to kill the white man and have his way with Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, and Naomi Watts all at once, forever.
Or, maybe Kong represents wounded male sexuality in the cold shower of the machine age. The Great Depression threatened to make men soft and, damn it, Kong was hard. Pure primitive machismo. Until he fell in love with Ann Darrow, that is. Then he got soft like everyone else. Dames! He had to climb the world’s largest phallic symbol to show all the men in a man’s world that he was tough. But too late. That broad was his downfall. She broke his heart and freaked him out with all that screaming.
And why was she screaming? Maybe because Kong is really the beast that dwelled inside Fay Wray. Her projected monster carried her to hysterical heights and, for a moment, allowed her enough freedom to express a primal nature that most women in her day would deny existed.
What emerges clearest from the crazy-making theories is the simplest idea: Kong is a romantic. He doesn’t care what happens to him, not if he can’t have his impossible love.
And that’s where Walton Ford’s interest sparks. He couldn’t care less about all the didactic Kongism. But when Kong gets all choked up and forlorn, he pays attention. Up on home-built scaffolding in his studio, a building in a once-abandoned lumberyard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Ford’s been working furiously on a series of three giant Kong paintings (“the largest watercolors ever, I think”) that debuted at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York in November. It took ages for him to figure out how to find his way in to these monster portraits, which as a series are called I Don’t Like to Look at Him, Jack. It Makes Me Think of That Awful Day on the Island.
“As a fan of the original movie, I can talk till dawn, but as an artist, I run as far away as I can from the political angle, the race angle, the psychosexual angle, any angle anyone wants to bring to these Kong paintings,” Ford says with an edge in his otherwise friendly voice.
We still find many other things to discuss: Kong in Los Angeles, grief, Humbert Humbert, and how a sculptor named Willis O’Brien might be the person most responsible for the tragic vision of Kong that inhabits so many of our dreams.
SLAKE: How did Kong enter your life?
WALTON FORD: I have wanted to enter into the world of Kong ever since I saw the 1933 version when I was a little kid. I wanted to be a part of that expedition. Actually, I wanted to be killed on that expedition trying to save Ann Darrow. Growing up in suburban Westchester, New York, this was the world I wanted—dinosaurs, danger, women.
How did you relate to Kong back then?
I would be so frustrated with the plastic gorilla masks that were available at Halloween. I took sponge rubber and fashioned an upper and lower mandible of an ape; I’d rig them together with a system of rubber bands and I’d paint my face black. I had this crudely articulated gorilla mask that was infinitely more satisfying. It would last an afternoon before it tore itself apart. But it was helping me enter into the world of Kong.
You identified more with Kong than the Carl Denham or Jack Driscoll characters?
Any role, actually. All of them. As a kid I loved the greed and the machismo, the fearlessness. I just took it as it was. I just swallowed the whole movie in its entirety. I didn’t have to parse it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing back then. Actually, that’s not true. I was always frustrated with the transition between the super-expressive articulated little puppets that [Willis O’Brien] made for the stop-motion sequences and the rigidity of the big head. The small puppets could do all of these amazing things with their lips with stop-motion. But the big head just sort of sits there and snaps its jaws.
Totally different emotional impact.
Lately, as an adult, I like the differences. When I painted these portraits I had to revisit those early feelings. I decided to split the difference between the big head and the little puppet models. I wanted to use these inconsistencies since Kong was neither a gorilla nor a chimp nor a man; he’s just this ugly, fucked-up, pseudo-ape monster. I understand that there are so many things that can be said about Kong. I’m just not saying any of them this time. I’m not analyzing these works. It doesn’t happen that often. I’m painting them rapidly. It’s coming from a really personal place.
Apr 1, 12:53 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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