Who are some of your other flawed heroes?
I hate the word hero, the way it’s used today, but I like Tolstoy. (laughs) There’s a good one. Gold Walt Whitman. They’re not perfect. Virginia Wolf. Some of my heroes are writers more than artists. Maybe I’m just in awe of that kind of particular talent. People like HC Westerman.
Tell me about Chay, your tiger in the room.
That just means burn or burning. I’ve painted this subject multiple times, and if you put all the versions of this together, I sort of did a comic strip. I’ve done all the different times. It’s a Vietnamese folktale about how the tiger got its stripes…from a little popular collection of stories that use the zodiac – The Asian Animal Zodiac by Ruth Q. Sun.
The tiger is tricked by a farmer. The tiger has this beautiful golden coat, without any markings on it, but he sees a little farmer beating his ox and driving him through the fields. He asks the oxen, why do you put up w/this little man beating you? What has he got that you don’t have? The oxen says, He has intelligence. That’s how he controls me. The tiger says, What’s intelligence? The little farmer says, I’ve kept my intelligence at home and I have to go fetch it. But I’m afraid that you’ll eat my oxen while I’m gone, so I’m going to tie you to a tree in the meantime. The tiger lets himself be tied to the tree. The farmer sets fire to the tiger, and says, Now you know what my intelligence is. Meanwhile, the fire burns between the ropes and puts the stripes on the tiger and the tiger bursts free of the ropes. I have him flying through the air in an earlier painting. I have him without stripes in another painting, and now I have him finally leaping into the water to put the flame out. And he gets relief. Now he has these stripes. I wrote the dates of the last day of the American involvement in Vietnam on the painting next to the title. It’s like the relief – finally we’re done with at least this phase, getting our stripes. So there’s hidden political meaning in it, but it doesn’t have to be political. I added that, since it’s a Vietnamese folk tale, as a nod to our involvement in helping Vietnam even think of a folktale like that. (laugh)
What about this cast of characters you’ve made? How do they get along with each other?
They’re all rattling around inside of human culture, and that’s a very uncomfortable place for these animals to be. What all the animals I paint have in common is this involuntary or unchosen relationship with human culture. Most of the animals I paint, they don’t want to have anything to do with people if they can help it. And what I’m interested in is the cultural stories that make for that discomfort. How does a giraffe end up on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic?
Do all the animals in your show get along?
Goodness, I hadn’t thought of that. There doesn’t seem to be much interconnection. But if they could all talk, they’d have stories to tell about people, that’s for sure. They’d be like, “Ain’t it a bitch.” (laugh) They could commiserate, the sort of abusive relationship they have with human beings.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Walton Ford is open at Gagosian (555 West 24th Street) from March 11 through April 23.