Contributed by Jason Andrew / Letha Wilson’s work reflects her persistent intention to unite two sometimes antagonistic processes: photography and sculpture. Over the last decade, she has expanded my (and no doubt others’) understanding of the potential visual and physical convergence of these two mediums. On the occasion of her completion of a Windgate Artist Residency at Purchase College and a solo exhibition at Higher Pictures, I asked Wilson five questions about her past and process.
1. You are an innovator in the field of photography. When did you began to introduce the three-dimensional experience of your work?
Actually, I majored in painting major in undergrad, but was immediately interested in works that live in the nebulous in-between painting, sculpture, and photography. I took a wide range of classes to learn various techniques. Back then, I was drawn to sculpture and architectural installation, and I worked in these modes for a few years while still taking photographs and messing around with them on the side. Toward the end of my time in grad school I started my “photo extrusion” series, literally merging landscape photography with sculpture for the first time in my work. I recognized it as fertile territory, but it took me many years to develop the ideas into an ongoing artistic practice.
2. You’re a modern romantic! Is there a “tradition” we should recognize in your work? Ansel Adams? Richard Serra?
For me these artists are more like placeholders for ideas. Their work has a mythic quality. The tradition of landscape photography has moved into an enormous and democratic body of work, dispensed through office calendars, the internet, flickr, google, and instagram. In terms of historical artists who have inspired and influenced me, I would mention Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Jay DeFeo, Lee Bontecou, Anne Truitt, Louise Nevelson, Beverly Pepper, Lucio Fontana and also probably James Turrell. (Funny how there are no photographers in there!)
3. Because you grew up out west in the High Plains of Northern Colorado, do you think “place” and engagement with the natural environment play a critical role in your work? Tell me about your decision to visit, capture, then recreate “place” specifically in relationship to the large-scale site-specific work at your recent show at Purchase College called “Slit Slot Canyon.”
That piece was created at the end of my semester as a Windgate Artist in Residence at the school, so I had a lot of time to spend in the gallery considering it. I felt compelled to make a large-scale, substantial piece that could hold the space. It has a key wall. Over thirty feet tall and has an enormous window spanning its top. I also liked the idea of cutting a hole out of the wall itself – for this installation it gives the sense that the photo itself was cut out of the wall.
After considering several photographs, I landed on this very striking image I shot at Lower Antelope Canyon in Arizona. I was quite nervous to use this image. I felt it was almost too powerful, that the site itself (a sacred canyon on Navajo land) and the iconic status of this photograph was intimidating to me. But once I started working in the space, I felt it really was the right decision. The final ‘move’ to the piece was to cut a slot out of the canyon image, and thereby the sculptural wall itself – allowing the viewer to look up a see a bit of sky through the sculpture, and surprisingly creating a kind of sun dial affect as light shone through onto the floor. A final beautiful moment for me with this piece was when Marcel Gbeffa, a dancer, choreographer and Fullbright Scholar also at Purchase, led his dance class to create a group performance where the responded to and destroyed the piece at the end of the exhibition. It was really incredible and moving for me to witness.
4. Can you tell us about your process for selecting and collaging photographic fragments?
Sometimes I think of my studio process as creating a meal, from scratch. Taking the photographs is planting the vegetables, then there is the harvest (the darkroom) and from there the preparing (planning), cooking (welding / pouring concrete), and presentation of the meal. So the majority of the work is done after the photograph is taken, sometimes years and years later. I like this addition of time into the process, and that my archive of photographs is active, continues to change and have relevance to me. Generally, I do like working with my most recent photographs, and every year or so I try to take at least one big trip specifically to gather images from the landscape. This will fuel me for many, many months, and as I sort through the images I always get new ideas for work.
5. Process, whether it be mixing in concrete or metal framework, has always been an intriguing element in your work. Can you tell us about the process involved in your current show at Higher Pictures?
The folded metal pieces in the Higher Pictures show have been one of the longer projects I have worked on. I had the initial idea in late 2019, and I wanted to make works that could be physically manipulated, live on the walls or on a pedestal, exist somewhere between image and object, and be both. That an entire exhibition could be carried inside a (very heavy) small box. It was a major technical challenge that I started working out in small paper models. Also I wanted to create a relationship between the raw metal material (brass, copper, and steel) and the images so that both had equal importance.
After considering some larger scale versions of this idea, I settled on completing an entire “set” of twenty-four works for this exhibition, as many as could be cut from three sheets of metal. The pieces also have a relationship to artist books I have created, thinking about the front / backs and folding up into smaller pieces. The project felt like a major risk for me, as I was creating a new fabrication method purely through trial and error. But seeing all the works in the space, and playing with how they could be installed, has been well worth it for me.
“Letha Wilson: Folds and Faults,” Higher Pictures, 16 Main Street, Ground Floor, Brooklyn, NY. Through March 4, 2023.
About the author: Jason Andrew is an independent curator and writer based in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram: @jandrewartsarts
Thank you for this article with details about the wonderful work and process…much food for thought.