Letha Wilson, Horizon Eyes @Grimm

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 sculptural pieces that combine color photographs with industrial materials. Thirteen are framed (two are matted) and hang on the four walls of the gallery; two are free standing, one situated toward the middle of the gallery space, one at the back. They are dated 2017 or 2018 and are constructed as follows:

  • 2 UV print on zinc (40 x 29 ½ x 10 ½ in.; 36 x 28 x 8 in.)
  • 1 cement, emulsion transfer, aluminum frame (48 x 38 x 1 ½ in.)
  • 1 archival inkjet prints (22 ½  x 18 ½ in.)
  • 1 archival inkjet prints with copper piece (22 ½ x 18 ½ in.)
  • 1 archival inkjet prints with brass piece (22 1/2 x 18 ½ in.)
  • 2 UV prints on Corten steel (132 x 51 x 60 in.; 120 x 58 x 45 in.)
  • 2 unique C-prints, concrete, emulsion transfer, steel frame (38 x 33 x 1 1/2 in.; 38 x 32 x 1 ½ in.)
  • 1 UV print on vinyl, steel pipe (58 x 42 x 16 in.)
  • 1 UV prints on aluminum (38 x 152 x 10 in.)
  • 1 digital C-print, steel (120 x 90 x 6 in.)
  • 2 emulsion transfer on concrete (58 x 50 x 2 in.)

(Installation shots below, some courtesy of the Grimm Gallery website.)

Comments/Context: It’s too early to know if the photograph-sculptures Letha Wilson has been making over the last 5 years will torment conservators of the future. One of her signature materials, concrete, is notoriously friable. Sandwiched within an armature, her gray slabs of porous stone have in the past looked as if a jarring blow might fracture their crumbly surfaces or dislodge them entirely. Pieces smeared with a thin film of dried concrete seemed no less prone to damage.

Wilson’s craftsmanship makes me optimistic that they won’t fall apart any time soon. Indeed, more impressive than the meaning of her sculpted works is their engineering. Keeping mismatched elements securely integrated requires know-how. Her pieces aren’t shoddy.

This show of 15 works from 2017-18 demonstrates an increasing confidence in her maverick approach. She remains committed to photographs as the principle source of content, but they are applied here to an array of metals (zinc, aluminum, and steel) that she has bent or cut with flamboyant energy.

Decorative urges seem to be competing with more brutalist ones. Joshua Tree Wall Bend billows out from the wall like the sail on a toy boat or one of Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped canvases. The applied photograph depicts a low ridge of warmly sunlit mountains against an expanse of washy sky. Nevada Moon Hug is another compact, sconce-like piece. More feminine, it folds in its corners at the bottom (the inverse of her 2011 piece, Hu Grand Tetons, where the top two corners overlapped.) Rising within this protected space is a tiny pale round moon.

Nevada Moonrise Metal Fold, a variation on her 2015 piece Nevada Sunrise Sundial (One Line Angle), is as simple and elegant as anything she has done. The full moon is the central object imprinted on a single sheet of aluminum folded into triangles that protrude almost a foot from the wall. The purple sky and orange blush on the low horizon of mountains are flagrantly romantic, the pyramidal metal shapes recalling the structures that civilizations centuries ago erected in other desert climates.

Wilson was born in Hawaii and has referred often in the past to its places and plants. Steel Face Concrete Bend (Kauai Palm) is one of her concrete-slashed pieces, with patches of greenery floating on the surface like islands in a sea of blue. Headlands Beach Steel Pipe Bend features a UV photograph of a dark, rocky silhouette at sunrise (or sunset?) weighted to the floor by a hollow cylindrical pipe. The allusions invoke nature (the long curls of waves surfers hope to pass through) as well as art (Richard Serra’s early rolled-steel sculptures.)

The 79-year sculptor continues to be a prime influence on Wilson’s formal thinking, along with Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions. Another work here, the imposing Steel I-Beam Wall Push, with its 2001-like dark slab pressed against a photograph of clouds, and her earlier (2016) Land Escapes (Nevada Push), which impaled a photograph high on the wall with a wooden beam wedged on the floor, are similarly Serra-inspired.

Two free-standing sculptures, Iceland Utah Canyon Diamond Hole and Bryce Canyon Lava Push, are the tallest in the show.  Moss and stone on a hillside provide image material for the former, walls of sandstone and sky for the latter. Both are earnest but gawky, the balance of competing elements weighted too much in favor of the three-dimensional over the photographic.

A pair of smaller works in her favorite material is spiffier. Utah Nevada Concrete Ripple Wave (Magenta) and Hawaii California Ripple Wave (Blue) have a sensual rhythm, the curving s shapes moving across the wall like gyrating hips wrapped in a sarong. Her technique for striating concrete and coloring it, as seen in earlier works such as Kauai Concrete Ripple (2015) and Utah Canyons Concrete Ripple Tondo (2016), makes the surfaces more like terra cotta roof tile than the pedestrian stuff of parking lots and walkways.

To believe that one could merge the smooth, image-laden surface of a photograph with the rough, sandiness of cement or the flat chill of steel is the sort of impure thought that fueled arte povera and artists from other schools in the 1960s and ‘70s, who took delight in mixing genres that had no previous business affiliating. Wilson is one of many younger artists to have revived this disrespectful attitude, and one of the best.

I’m not sure what she gains, though, by limiting herself to sunrises and sunsets—and other clichés or nondescript scenery—in sifting through the photographic stockpile. To the extent that they are statements about the despoiled condition of the modern landscape, her pieces about U.S. National Parks can be too literal. That nature has been denatured, fenced off, groomed and tailored to suit the whims of humankind is a philosophic banality that doesn’t need to be duplicated by banal imagery. True, she must be wary that the photograph doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with associations that detract from the physicality of her sculpture. But incorporating a wider repertoire of nature or weather scenes (marshland? tornados? hurricanes? lightning storms?) or perhaps even drawing on urban life (leafy streets? bridges over rivers?) might be a direction worth traveling.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $6500 to $45000, based on size; all are unique. Wilson’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Letha Wilson, Grimm Gallery

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