Art-ho­gan hero

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

“In­dian photography” needs a new mean­ing. Rather than re­fer­ring to the hack­neyed im­ages that di­min­ish Na­tive peo­ple to Euro-Amer­i­can ideals, this term should re­fer to photography by Na­tive Amer­i­cans. That idea is the thread run­ning through the works of artistWil­lWil­son. Photography has long been at the cen­ter ofWil­son’s ex­pres­sion; how­ever, he has re­cently ex­panded into the realm of ar­chi­tec­ture, cre­at­ing steel ver­sions of Navajo ho­gans.

Wil­son, whose fa­ther was Ir­ish andWelsh and whose mother is Navajo, has an of­fice at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts in Santa Fe. He is the mu­seum’s man­ager of the Vi­sion Project, part of a Ford Foun­da­tion grant ini­tia­tive called Ad­vanc­ing the Di­a­logue on Na­tive Amer­i­can Arts in So­ci­ety. In late Jan­uary, Wil­son learned he had been se­lected as one of 25 na­tional re­cip­i­ents of a 2009 Joan Mitchell Foun­da­tion Painters and Sculp­tors grant. He is in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble uses for the award; one would be to cre­ate an “in­dige­nous de­sign stu­dio.”

Born in San Fran­cisco, Wil­son lived on the Navajo Reser­va­tion from the age of 10. He at­tended the Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs’ Tuba City Board­ing School. He first started us­ing a cam­era, a Nikon FE2, when he was 15. The epiphany that turned him to­ward the craft came when a pho­to­jour­nal­ist friend took him to see a show of Joel-PeterWitkin pho­to­graphs at the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. “I was to­tally freaked out and fas­ci­nated,” he said. “I was like, who is this guy? Th­ese are amaz­ing im­ages. The lit­tle bio said he went to The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico, and I thought, that’s what I’ll do. And I did.”

Af­ter five years at the BIA school, Wil­son “got plucked off the rez,” he said. Through the A Bet­ter Chance pro­gram, his ed­u­ca­tion was fur­thered at the North­field Mount Her­mon School in Mas­sachusetts. “I had the op­por­tu­nity to take a photography class there, then I fo­cused on that in col­lege. I went to Ober­lin Col­lege. That was the first time I re­ally got my eyes open to con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Amer­i­can art but also crit­i­cal per­spec­tives like post­colo­nial so­ci­ety — kind of a left­ist, crit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of art. It gave voice to some­thing in me that al­ready ex­isted.”

Wil­son’s early predilec­tion for doc­u­men­tary photography re­sulted in a body of work pop­u­lated mostly with im­ages of peo­ple he knew and of life on the reser­va­tion. At Ober­lin, his con­fu­sion about how to make use of those pho­tos was re­solved. “I took a class with Edgar Heap of Birds, who’s ac­tu­ally one of the artists in the Vi­sion Project. I was strug­gling with what I could do with th­ese im­ages of my fam­ily of friends and how to fig­ure out a con­text for them to be viewed in and to pro­tect them — to change the dy­namic of this un­crit­i­cal con­sump­tion of im­ages of Na­tive folks — and he en­cour­aged me to do an in­stal­la­tion.”

The re­sult­ing show at Ober­lin con­sisted of pho­to­graphs em­bed­ded in— and sur­round­ing— a dirt path­way walled with sticks. There was a per­for­mance el­e­ment, in which Wil­son, naked and painted half-white and half-black, clam­bered around in the room’s rafters and re­cited a Les­lie Mar­mon Silko piece about a witch at a con­fer­ence of witches who tells an aw­ful story in the time be­fore the com­ing of the white man, ba­si­cally pre­dict­ing col­o­niza­tion. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of shown my work in the con­text of some­thing more ar­chi­tec­tural or that en­velops the viewer,” Wil­son said.

Af­ter get­ting his bach­e­lor’s de­gree at Ober­lin, Wil­son con­tin­ued his stud­ies at UNM, where he earned a mas­ter of fine arts in pho­tograpy. When he got out of school, though, Wil­son sort of felt cheated, be­cause dig­i­tal im­age­mak­ing seemed to sud­denly be tak­ing over ev­ery­thing. Af­ter grad school, he spent two years work­ing as a stringer pho­tog­ra­pher for the As­so­ci­ated Press in Costa Rica. “When I came back, they wanted all th­ese new MFAs to usher in the dig­i­tal age, but I didn’t know how to do all that stuff.”

Since that time, Wil­son has learned the ins and outs of dig­i­tal photography, as ev­i­denced in the large, archival pig­ment prints from his on­go­ing Auto Im­mune Re­sponse se­ries. He was in Santa Fe a decade ago, teach­ing sculp­ture for a year at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts. He is back, hav­ing re­cently moved from Tuc­son, where he cre­ated a large pub­lic-art project. His HZG (aka Hozhographos) Stu­dio pro­duced a 12,000-square-foot glass-tile pho­to­mo­saic known as the Barrio Anita Com­mu­nity Mu­ral Project. He also has gallery rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Ari­zona, at the Berlin Gallery at the Heard Mu­seum Shop in Phoenix.

Wil­son said he is con­sid­er­ing do­ing some­thing in the pub­lic-art vein in New Mex­ico. Mean­while, he is stay­ing busy with the Vi­sion Project. Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts di­rec­tor Patsy Phillips as­sem­bled a “dream team” with Wil­son as the project man­ager and Ryan Rice, the new cu­ra­tor of ex­hi­bi­tions and pro­grams, as Vi­sion Project di­rec­tor.

The team in­vited 60 Na­tive Amer­i­can con­tem­po­rary artists from the United States to be in­volved in the project. They run the gamut in ages, tribal af­fil­i­a­tions, and art medi­ums. The team has se­lected 15 Na­tive Amer­i­can schol­ars to pro­duce es­says about the artists. Those col­lab­o­ra­tions will yield five re­sults: an in­for­ma­tion­alWeb site, a book to be edited by IAIA alumna Nancy Marie Mithlo, a trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, a video project, and a down­load­able cur­ricu­lum. The time frame for com­ple­tion is July 2011, Wil­son said.

In his own re­cent work, Wil­son in­dulges his in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture— es­pe­cially that of the Navajo ho­gan. He has

used the in­te­ri­ors of ac­tual ho­gans, with their oc­tag­o­nal roofs of wo­ven wood, as sets for his pho­to­graphic por­tray­als, and he has built “art ho­gans” out of steel.

His Auto Im­mune Re­sponse se­ries has evolved, as if the pic­tures are telling a story. In the first im­age, Wil­son is shown gaz­ing across the land­scape—“kind of a postapoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion,” as he de­scribed it. In sub­se­quent pho­to­graphs, the pro­tag­o­nist finds a lab­o­ra­tory, and the peo­ple have pros­thetic de­vices like gas masks that “en­able them to in­ter­act with the land­scape, even though it’s toxic. By the end of the se­quence, he makes a house, which is ac­tu­ally the house my grand­fa­ther built,” Wil­son said. “The gen­eral idea is that this is his lab­o­ra­tory and where he fig­ures out how to get sus­te­nance from the Earth.”

In some pho­tos, we see an odd-looking bed or a chair. Wil­son says th­ese fur­nish­ings are wo­ven of polyvinyl tub­ing— through which air and wa­ter are pumped, a ref­er­ence to the body’s cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem.

“The idea is that Na­tive Amer­i­cans might be the ca­naries in the coal mine in re­la­tion to cli­mate change and cul­tural mi­gra­tion,” he said. “It’s hard to re­spond to such in­cred­i­ble change, but I think that cul­ture is re­spon­sive. Na­tive Amer­i­cans are do­ing crazy, amaz­ing video pro­duc­tion right now over on [the IAIA] cam­pus, and that’s an evo­lu­tion of cul­ture.”

The lat­est ver­sion of his art ho­gan is a steel green­house, an herb gar­den. “The in­dige­nous de­sign stu­dio I want to do would bring ... tech­nol­ogy, art, and sus­tain­abil­ity to­gether,” the artist said. “I’d like to col­lab­o­rate with the Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH or­ga­ni­za­tion, which archives na­tive seeds from all over the coun­try, and any in­dige­nous per­son can ob­tain seed there. So it’s trans­form­ing the ho­gan from the in­stal­la­tion to a green­house and cul­ti­vat­ing the seed.”

Wil­son is also fas­ci­nated with earthships and straw-bale ar­chi­tec­ture and mod­ernist pre­fab hous­ing. “Yeah. That’s what I want to do,” he said. “I want to pull a trailer over to the IAIA cam­pus, and we’ll gut it and then re­build it, with a ho­gan green­house next to it.”

Will Wil­son: Auto Im­mune Re­sponse #5, archival pig­ment print; im­ages cour­tesy the artist

Auto Im­mune Re­sponse, mixed me­dia in­stal­la­tion

Wil­son weav­ing a bed as part of the

Auto Im­mune Re­sponse

in­stal­la­tion

Three Broaches (Wil­son at cen­ter with his grand­mother on the right and a fam­ily friend, mid-1990s)

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