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Artist series imagines photographer as sole survivor

SANTA FE, N.M. — Some of the influences on Will Wilson’s series AIR (Auto Immune Response) are apparent: the hogans from his Navajo heritage coupled with today’s technology and the environmental degradation that has taken place over the centuries of European intrusion.

But at least one might come as a surprise: “The Omega Man,” a 1971 movie in which Charlton Heston plays the only survivor with immunity to the biological warfare that occurred between the U.S. and Russia.

“He was the only guy in L.A.,” said Wilson. “I had a lot of influence from … the post-apocalyptic movies I grew up with.”

Will Wilson's AIR #3, inkjet print on archival paper, shows his narrator inside a Navajo hogan. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

Will Wilson’s AIR #3, inkjet print on archival paper, shows his narrator inside a Navajo hogan. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

So the AIR series, now on exhibit at Peters Projects through Feb. 18, grew from him thinking about how a lone survivor would make it in the world – but also about how Native Americans suffer disproportionately from certain diseases such as diabetes, which results from dietary and economic changes, he said. “We’re like the canaries in a coal mine,” Wilson said.

And speaking of mining, he also incorporated into his series reflections on uranium mining, which led to many health problems and deaths of Native American miners and their families, and whose product was used to build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

The series of photographs in the exhibit depict Wilson himself as a sole survivor trying to explore how to move on, sometimes showing him in a gas mask, sometimes working with a computer and tubing in a hogan. “I wanted people to understand that space,” he said. “It’s pretty intimate, used by one small family…

Will Wilson's mother and daughter appear with him in AIR: Confluence of Three Generations, overlooking the Grand Canyon from Navajo land. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

Will Wilson’s mother and daughter appear with him in AIR: Confluence of Three Generations, overlooking the Grand Canyon from Navajo land. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

“Navajo cosmology can be explained in the architecture of a hogan,” Wilson continued. It’s laid out in the cardinal directions, with the doorway facing the rising sun; it’s round, with an earth floor and a portal to the sky, he said.

The exhibit also includes an installation of a somewhat minimalist hogan with a metal latticework for walls and an open roof, with air plants hanging on the frame along with clear plastic tubing that reveals air bubbles and water circulating around the structure. The same tubing runs through a cot within the structure, recalling his boarding school experience.

Wilson said he constructed a more complete hogan at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock; that hogan has been converted to a greenhouse growing plants from indigenous seeds.

A triptych of images in the Peters Project exhibit, “AIR Rio: On Consideration of Invasive Species,” shows his narrator contemplating various riverside invaders, such as tamarisk and tumbleweed. “Also, it’s right downriver from Los Alamos,” he added of the setting.

Some eerie images show sky and clouds reflected in a layer of water. It’s something you don’t see often in the Southwest, but Wilson said it is an actual setting in southern New Mexico along I-10 near the Arizona border. It’s a natural basin that, when the monsoons hit, fills with about 6 inches of water. “It’s like a giant reflecting pool,” he said.

AIR #6 by Will Wilson was taken at a water-filled basin of land along Interstate 10 in southern New Mexico. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

AIR #6 by Will Wilson was taken at a water-filled basin of land along Interstate 10 in southern New Mexico. (Courtesy of Peters Projects)

And it’s also a setting where, not long after 9/11, he was hauling out equipment and setting up photographs when a state trooper pulled over to investigate what he was doing. “I’m making art,” Wilson said he told him, and the officer wished him well.

In some of his photographic scenes, Wilson’s own figure is doubled, a reference to the Navajo creation story in which twins, Born for Water and Monster Slayer, made the world inhabitable for people.

“At some point, the Holy Beings offered a choice of two substances that were yellow: uranium or corn pollen,” Wilson said. “The people chose corn pollen. That means you can’t mess with the other yellow stuff.”

The only photograph to show other humans is the “Three Generations” image in the series, in which Wilson is joined by his mother and daughter overlooking the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers in the Grand Canyon. That setting is on Navajo land, not far from a family sheep camp, he said.

The technical aspects of his photographs are a combination of the old and the new. He uses wet plate collodian as well as contemporary digital imaging. “It’s all blended together,” Wilson said. “It’s kind of about remembering the future, playing with time.”

Some images are rearranged through a slightly askew stitching of photographs, an approach Wilson said is inspired by David Hockney’s photo collages.

“I like how he pushes it into the post-modern,” said Peters Projects director Eileen Braziel. “He’s allowing one to see the process of photography as well as the photograph itself.”

A version of this exhibit previously was shown at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, but this is the first time it has been shown in a commercial gallery, according to Braziel.

Born in San Francisco and raised on the Navajo Nation, Wilson currently lives in Santa Fe, where he is head of photography at the Santa Fe Community College.

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