Date

2012

Department or Program

Art

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Patricia G. Berman

Abstract

This thesis examines a selection of works by the contemporary American artist Walton Ford (b. 1960). Ford’s watercolors and prints feature animal and avian protagonists that are rendered in actual scale. His meticulous techniques recall those of eighteenth-and nineteenth century natural science illustrators. Ford often employs illustrations of the North American avifauna from John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-38) as a reference point. However, his images display complex appropriations that reach across art, literary, and cultural histories. His works are filled with not only embedded visuals with external reference points, but also with written inscriptions bearing complex connotations. As such, this project tackles his works through the following seven-steps.

In Chapter One, I introduce Walton Ford and offer a cursory archaeology of his artistic strategies. This initial exegesis is followed up in Chapter Two with a detailed investigation into the prominence of the nineteenth-century naturalist John James Audubon in Walton Ford’s works, from his textual references to actual appropriations of Audubon’s images. Chapter Three continues the investigation into the discipline of natural history itself, by examining Ford’s creation of his own “unnatural history” through subversive elements and quotations. Chapter Four takes a deconstructive approach to the tensions between written words and visual images with regard to understanding and formulating narratives—a concern widely considered by contemporary conceptual artists. Chapter Five examines Ford’s images in relation to the canon of animal fables, and to their subsequent sociopolitical implications. Chapter Six examines historicism as a theme and issue in contemporary art. To conclude the project, I entertain the complexity of the interpretative process itself in regard to vision and history.

This project is not a comprehensive undertaking of the entirety of Ford’s extensive artistic corpus. Rather, it takes a postcolonial and a postmodernist approach. This focus on the legacy of nature and narrative in the legacy of imperialism is due to the fact that nature itself is a burdened invocation and Ford’s propensity to quote from eighteenth-and nineteenth century texts, calls for such an analysis. This project, therefore, seeks to unpack the repressed postcolonial narratives that are liberated through the art of Walton Ford.

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