You’ve seen these portraits around L.A. Why are they now in the desert?

Two portraits, of a great horned owl and a man, under chain link mesh, mounted on a pole in an empty field
Glen Wilson, “Desert Totem,” 2021; salvaged steel and aluminum gates, chain link mesh and UV print on synthetic resin; 68 x 46 x 3 inches
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)

This story is part of Image issue 8, “Deserted,” a supercharged experience of becoming and spiritual renewal. Enjoy the trip! (Wink, wink.) See the full package here.

The desert I have experienced since moving to Southern California from Chicago nearly 30 years ago, as both a manifestation of space and an expression of time, belies expectations and never fails to reveal itself as an expanse of colliding dichotomies. Its terrain stretches out, boundaries prove flimsy, that which appears barren bears fruit. The moon rises equally underfoot as it does on the horizon, and here inevitably succumbs to there. Beyond any terrestrial prism through which one can observe a seemingly limitless place, the desert’s consciousness, I suspect, remains more in the cosmos than with the fleeting perspectives of humans moving through it. When I do find myself in the desert, whether arriving there as a destination to the east or north, or returning from it toward a different vast ocean in the West, my most fundamental questions are given space to breathe. “Where am I?”

Two portraits on either side of a pole sit between benches in front of a building.
“Desert Totem (West Adams, California)” in front of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building designed in 1949 by Paul Williams. The building was the headquarters of the largest Black-owned business west of the Mississippi (as of 1945), offering whole life insurance policies to the Black community that had until then been excluded not only from fair housing, but from the wealth-building financial instruments such policies represented. The building also once housed the company’s incredible collection of art by Black American artists, many from Los Angeles.
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)
A blurred car passes by "Desert Totem (West Adams, California)" and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building.
The lobby of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building still prominently features murals, commissioned by the company, depicting the contributions of pioneering Black citizens in California.
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)

If the desert reflects an endlessly evolving constellation of questions — a calling — my piece “Desert Totem” forms an ongoing response, a kind of personal, cosmic echolocation that plays in my creative work. It’s composed of portraits I made at different moments — of a man named Elijah and of a great horned owl — that are woven into the mesh of chain-link gates I have salvaged over years from homes (now gone, in my own neighborhood, but reactivated in my work). Both portraits reflect outward and inward (on the reverse).


I met Elijah years ago. We were both fishing in the desert — him literally, me metaphorically as I whisked along the desert highway, with Parliament-Funkadelic’s “Mothership Connection” blaring in my car. I had asked the cosmos a question about presence versus absence in the desert, and Elijah soon showed up, fishing along a roadside irrigation ditch, as if to say, “You are here!” At a different time, I was once compelled to give a burial to a great horned owl at the base of a saguaro where the Sonoran and the Mojave deserts blur together. Years later, I had an opportunity to meet one of the owl’s living descendants up close. Both images travel with me, in my mind’s eye, along with the work I do. And just as I continue to move “Desert Totem” from one context to another, questions around presence versus absence, arrival versus departure, settling versus migrating and erasure versus equity, will linger, provoke and hopefully weave connections.

Portraits of a great horned owl and a person at an entrance to the eastbound 10 freeway.
“Desert Totem” placed at one of several freeway on-ramps where drivers and pedestrians might catch glimpses the work set amidst other signage. Artist Glen Wilson says, “Like the freeway signs, which are a ubiquitous part of Southern California’s visual vernacular, I consider the gates part of the language of the urbanscape and fleeting collective memory. I wanted them to both blend with and disrupt the expectations of spaces characterized by the movement of departure and merger.”
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)
"Desert Totem (Lancaster, California)" in a field of yellowed grass.
“Desert Totem (Lancaster, California)” sits where 25th Street East dead-ends into the Mojave Desert. The growth of communities like Lancaster and Palmdale, an hour and a half north of downtown Los Angeles, where the edges of L.A. County blend into the desert itself, are a part of the story about economic pressures, affordability, equity and the places where communities may reconstitute themselves.
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)
Two youths on bikes next to "Desert Totem (Lancaster, California)"
These young bikers circled back to the spot where I was installing “Desert Totem (Lancaster, California).” We talked art, living in Lancaster, motorcycle maintenance and a missing gas cap. They blessed the totem with a pose and a gaze into the setting desert sun before tearing off after it.
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)
The sun sets behind "Desert Totem."
Lost in translation, found in the desert ... the sun wants its final word in the Mojave, until the moon rises to speak.
(Glen Wilson / For The Times)

Glen Wilson’s (born 1969, Columbus, Ohio, lives and works in Los Angeles) multidisciplinary practice is comprised of photography, sculpture, filmmaking, installation and assemblage. Provoking questions around voice, visibility and cartography, Wilson’s works suggest fluid narratives of place, diaspora, cultural heritage and the intersections of individual and communal identity. Wilson has shown most recently at Frieze London and in group exhibitions at the Getty Center and the California African American Museum. Wilson received a B.A. from Yale University and an MFA from the University of California San Diego and is represented by Various Small Fires gallery (Los Angeles/Seoul).