Focus on Installation: Letha Wilson
In Letha Wilson’s multimedia works, photographs of the land are bolstered with structural materials, blending natural vistas with industrial substances. This practice yields photographs with tangible body and geometric form, alluding to the sensory elements of walking through and experiencing a landscape firsthand — rather than looking at a photographic image reproduction. With her portfolio, Wilson reprises age-old questions that tend to surface when we think about our environment: how can we better understand our relationship to — and our effects on — the world around us? How can we best protect and sustain our natural resources? Who is responsible for the spaces in which we dwell, and what does this entail? An interview with the artist follows.
Letha Wilson was born in Hawaii, raised in Colorado, and currently works in Craryville and Brooklyn, New York. She received her BFA from Syracuse University, and her MFA from Hunter College in New York City. Letha attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2009, and her artwork has been shown at many venues including Mass MoCA, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, Art in General, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, and International Center for Photography. Letha’s work has been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times, The New Yorker, among others. Letha has been awarded artist residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Sharpe -Walentas Studio Program, among others. In both 2019 and 2014 Letha was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Photography.
In my work the ability of a photograph to transport the viewer is both called upon, and questioned; sculptural interventions attempt to compensate for the photograph’s failure to encompass the physical site it represents. Landscape photography as a genre is approached with equal parts reverence and skepticism. These pieces call to share in a view of our surrounding natural environments; specific moments chosen from the natural world held in a tenuous balance alongside our constructed everyday.
The photographs in my work have been taken myself over the last twenty years, often from travels in the American West. The hands-on relationship I have developed with photography allows me to further push its potential as sculptural material. My studio practice has a strong emphasis on material experimentation, where tests and trials lead to discoveries, and unexpected results. Often times my work is created in response to a particular environment or context, often the gallery architecture, or an outdoor setting.
My interest in working with these materials and process is also that it will allow me to engage in a conversation about the landscape, our environment, and its history with more nuanced and complex possibilities. The material relationship between steel and concrete in tandem with the image of the landscape can evoke a fragile yet powerful balance between the control and chaos of these elements. I would like to consider a relationship to these natural spaces, what they can teach us, and how they should be protected. —Letha Wilson
Take us back to the beginning. How did you come to photography and at what point did you begin to intervene as an artist, following a less traditional path?
As an undergraduate, I was a painting major at Syracuse University, where I became interested in ideas that crossed over traditional medium definitions such as painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. I took as many studio classes as I could: Sculpture, printmaking, and both black and white and color photography, among others. By the time I got to graduate school at Hunter College, I was fully embracing this cross-disciplinary way of working. And by the end of graduate school I had specifically directed my inquiries into landscape photography, and how this genre could be expanded upon using sculptural intervention.
There is a longstanding history of photographers documenting landscapes — I’m thinking in particular about our visual culture’s affinity for large, sweeping vistas of the American West — and I find myself wondering how you might be thinking about this history as you contemporize it in photo-sculptural form. What sparked the idea of expanding your own take on landscape photographs into a multidimensional space?
Approaching photography from a somewhat outside perspective, I was perplexed by all the rules surrounding its presentation, and how photography as a medium was treated separately from other fine art forms. I just approached it as another tool in my tool belt. I was also very specifically interested in how to make a landscape photograph feel contemporary, not just simply beautiful. While I was in graduate school, around 2002, I started specifically working with this idea. I was trying to express a frustration with the landscape image that although beautiful, was also inert, lifeless, flat, even boring. Could a sculptural approach to these images spark a new way to experience these photographs? Could the work itself then enter a situational relationship with the viewer – and be more aligned with that original site where the photograph was taken? These were some questions I was asking then, and still today.
Will you speak a bit towards your use of industrial materials — concrete, steel, etc. — alongside photography? Are you naturally crafty with your chosen materials, or was there a learning curve?
I am interested in materials that both refer to natural elements, but also industrial and building materials, and can sort of co-exist in these realms. Trees / lumber, gypsum / drywall, rock / concrete, iron ore / steel, for example. My project and challenge has been how to work with these materials, in combination with photographic processes, to create artworks whose very material basis and relationship with the image creates a relationship, a balance, a conversation. And yes there has definitely been a learning curve working with this range of materials and processes! I enjoy learning and experimenting, it is a big part of my studio practice.
Do you create work for a particular space?
I do enjoy making work for a specific site, although this isn’t always possible. To me it is an opportunity to make a work that is particular both to a time and place. And then all you have left is the documentation of the work – or the experience in it.
What is your dream venue to exhibit work?
Very good question – one specific place doesn’t come to mind, but recently I have been working with outdoor sculptures and having work in the public realm and outdoors is really exciting. When the work comes back outdoors it really seems to go full circle for me. That being said, I enjoy responding to indoor architecture as well; I spent years building walls for galleries, and I have a genuine love for working with drywall. This insight allows me to approach each wall as a possible site for physical intervention. Every gallery or exhibit space has its own parameters and potential specific details that I can respond to.
How has your work changed your own perspective on the environments and landscapes we inhabit?
I use my artwork as an excuse to travel to incredible sites, and this has been wonderful. Often these are in the Western United States; Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, but I have also spent some time in Hawaii. I really cherish each trip – these places become pinpoints in my psyche and emotional self, as well as my visual memory. Part of my practice is really optically and physically absorbing these places, through photography and observation, and then bringing these moments back to the studio. I am thankful for all the incredible public places that are available to us through the US Parks system, Bureau of Land Management, State Parks, and Conservation areas. On every trail and adventure I take, I am continually in awe and have such a deep appreciation and reverence for these natural landscapes. I hope that even in some small way, viewers can also share in this appreciation through my work.
Currently on view:
“Hawaii California Steel (Figure Ground)” at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, MA
The Space(s) Between at the Vicki Myrhen Gallery at Denver University, Denver, CO
March 11 – May 2, 2021
New outdoor sculpture for RE:GROWTH exhibition, curated by Karin Bravin on view at Riverside Park South, 66th street and the Hudson River, New York City
June 5 – September 12 2021
“Light” group exhibition curated by Rico Gatson
Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City
May 13 – June 19, 2021
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