I meet Juan Ford in 1999 over several LookSmart staff lunches when he was doing his masters; his then girlfriend was a colleague of mine. Juan Ford is gregarious and we enjoyed talking about art when everyone else was talking about the internet. I saw many of Juan Ford’s exhibitions in Melbourne, the openings were always packed with people. At first these were at artist run or rental spaces and then major art galleries like Dianne Tanzer Gallery in Melbourne and Jan Manton Art in Brisbane.
The first painting of Juan Ford’s that I saw was his 1999 exhibition at TCB art Inc. “The Way It Is”. The exhibition consisted of a single canvas on an easel that faced away from the small gallery’s shopfront window; on the canvas was a view looking out of the gallery from that spot, it was like a Magritte image brought to life.
After that Juan Ford started to exhibit anamorphic images engraved through the paint onto the aluminium support. Anamorphic images are images that are not their own shape because they have been stretched or otherwise distorted. Anamorphic images are an old painting trick for creating a hidden image; most famously know with the distorted skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) and Salvador Dali continued this optical tradition with a few lithographs in 1972 that have to be viewed in a reflecting cylinder, a bottle of Ponche Caballero, to be precise. Ford’s anamorphic paintings are like The Chemical Bros in paint, distorted images are scratched with a groove cutter across portraits of Juan’s friends in a daring display. And the anamorphic images produced a special kind of audience interaction with the paintings as people stood on the extreme sides of the paintings trying to find the viewing point for the anamorphic image.
Ford’s early paintings were full of darkness and chiaroscuro lighting. He put excitement and drama in figurative painting with excellent painting technique and playing with optical distortions. However, this changed with his 2002 exhibition ‘Clone’ where his images were full of a lot more light and informed by a lot more science, like clones, hybridisation and the environment.
In 2006 I saw an exhibition of Juan Ford at Dudespace in Brunswick. Juan Ford was back from a residency in Rome courtesy of the Australia Council to study severed heads. He thought that these would be the severed heads in the paintings of Caravaggio but instead he found himself painting the broken disfigured marble heads of antiquity, heads that have been broken off statues of Neptune, Venus and Hestia, with their missing noses and other chips.
After that Juan Ford started to paint eucalyptus leaves, or their shadows on people’s skin. Images that are obviously Australian landscapes and baked in sunlight. I asked Juan why he wanted to paint obviously Australian images? Juan Ford replied: “I’m not sure there’s an entirely obvious response to that. I did want to tap into the rich history of Australian painting, but in an oblique way that said something about our times. Also I am conscious that a lot of art strives to emulate the ‘international’ aesthetic of the biennale circuit, or that shown in Frieze or e-flux. I really didn’t want that, I don’t find that kind of approach very interesting at all. I often that work with a local flavor has a greater dimension or depth.”
In his latest exhibition Juan Ford continues to paint images of Australian flora and to develop the ideas behind them. Bundles of gum leaves or Banksia flowers bound up in electrical cable, cellophane packing wrap or gaffa tape. The encroaching banality of modern hardware materials on the poetic flora is shown in complex but elegant images.
Juan Ford wrote about his 2007 exhibition in Queensland that: “The vanitas tradition used the skull to warn the viewer of the work that their soul was forever in danger from their thoughts and acts while alive. Well these are secular versions of that kind of thing, environmentally focused. I want to say that our arrogance can undo us, but life will keep going despite us. We do not own life, and never have – it flows though us, and then moves on. Wanting a 4wd and a huge plasma screen tv is just bullshit; each time this happens we a collective step closer to environmental catastrophe and subsequent annihilation.”