Letha Wilson’s photo-sculptures are elegant, forceful manipulations of form and image and push forward the field of contemporary landscape photography and sculpture. She has made very heavy 3,000 lb. photographs and enormous photographic images that crawl up walls and curl around architectural columns. In our present day, when most photographs are only ever seen digitally and on a phone, Wilson’s work is super material. She distresses photographs of landscapes and other natural features by burning, cutting, lasering, pouring, and welding into them with man-made materials like metal and concrete.
Some of the more aggressive traces on her sculptures are the smoky burn marks from her welding torch, suggesting a kind of ecological burnout and allude to the increasingly prevalent forest fires across the western United States. Melding human-made industrial material with pictures of geological terrains, Wilson’s artworks typify our present age of the Anthropocene, characterized by humankind’s dominant impact on the Earth’s environment and ecosystems.
Most of her artworks incorporate photographs she has taken while visiting National Parks in the American West. They connect in time back to the nineteenth century as ideas of American landscapes and their preservation coincided with the early days of photography. Wilson’s work does not provide explicit activist commentary on human-made ecological destruction; however, her sculptures and reliefs do bring about questions and contemplation about our contemporary fallout after years of Western colonial encroachment, dispossession of Indigenous people, and vast extraction of nature’s resources, all of which were simultaneous to the creation of the National Parks.
Since her childhood, Letha Wilson has visited many of these parks and taken photographs on long, often solitary hikes. Her close-up details of rocks, craters, and foliage are a rebuttal to the sublime, expansive views that typify traditional landscape photography. Her images are much more meditative and personal. On these hikes, Wilson is a sensitive receptor, she is not seeking pre-determined conventional views with foreground, middle and background.
Some of her most recent travels, taken just before the pandemic, were to Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho and Mead Botanical Garden in Orlando and feature into her newest body of work. The former is a remote, otherworldly space where US astronauts once trained for lunar missions, while the latter is a lush, botanical oasis where families can picnic amid the gardens, butterflies, and greenhouses. Additional works on view in this show feature images from Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, a favorite terrain of the artist and one super charged by ancient petroglyphs, red sandstone rocks and outcroppings. New wall reliefs such as Craters of the Moon Steel incorporate images of the spongey pock-marked volcanic rock face. The stone looks rusted and stained, so one may at first miss the circular torch marks that bore into the surface and suggest the forces of mining, fire, or explosive demolition. Wedges and curved shapes of UV-printed steel layer over each other, in a way that is both gentle and forceful.
Wilson deliberately shapes the space around her sculpted images, and one of the great and confounding pleasures of her work is how the profiles and silhouettes shift depending on your angle of view. Her work offers us lessons into how ideas of nature and landscape are constructed through human enterprise and vision, and convey that these natural places are in precarious positions.
Letha Wilson (b. 1976 in Honolulu, USA) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She received her BFA in Painting from Syracuse University and her MFA in Combined Media from Hunter College. Her residencies include the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Yaddo, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the GRIMM Gallery in New York, de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, Portland, Galerie Christophe Gaillard, Paris, France, and Light Work, Syracuse, USA. Letha has been awarded a NYFA (New York Foundation for the Art) Artist Fellowship by AWAW - Anonymous Was A Woman, 2020; a NYSCA / NYFA (New York Foundation for the Art) Artist Fellowship in Photography by the New York Foundation for the Art, 2019; and a travel grant by the Jerome Foundation.
Sarah Montross is curator at the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum. She also worked at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art where she organized exhibitions and publications such as Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas (2016). She received her PhD in art history from New York University and has held positions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is particularly interested in the relationship between art and technology and curated the exhibition Screens: Virtual Material and Cool Medium: Art, Television, & Psychedelia, 1960-1980 (2017).