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New Art Photography: Wendy Given’s Spiritual Mythologies

By Jon Feinstein

January 17, 2013

Wendy Given’s “In The Land of Pioneer” uses sculpture, taxidermy, and tableaux to create photographic narratives that explore the relationship between humankind and the natural world. The project, which is largely photographed in the woods of the Pacific Northwest where she resides, includes dark, witchy landscapes, unnerving, and sometimes humorous, images of rabbits, magical rocks, candles, and psychedelic mushrooms reminiscent of illustrations from old botany textbooks. Given’s greatest strength is her ability to connect photographs that do not follow a rigid visual formula, and in turn create a method of storytelling based on common mythology that is relatable to different generations and cultures of viewers.

Each photograph begins with the selection of a single word or phrase that is tied to mythology, and often becomes the title of the piece. She pulls from traditions of folklore ranging from Scandinavia, Africa, Germany, and The Netherlands, among others, and is fascinated by their tendency to overlap. In order to stage the shoot, Given researches historical texts, folklore and imagery related to the origins of the word and then plans, scouts, collects costumes, and props. While many of these photographs are elaborately staged, they transcend the contrivances of Gregory Crewdson- and Jeff Wall-derived early art school imagery in exchange for playful, genre-defying tropes.

Given’s work is not merely a reference point to old tales, but a living mythology that she describes as “integral to the comprehension, reverence and preservation of nature as a whole.” It’s about an ongoing quest to understand the spiritual relationship between humanity and the natural world. Every object, living or not, appears to breathe and pulse, to have a soul when it confronts her lens. A spider web has the same significance as a purple Martian rock, and a dimly lit, grainy photograph of a witch has the same tension as an overturned canoe. This fluid connection between aesthetically disparate images is what makes them so successful. It allows viewers to approach the images from different perspectives and ultimately come away with a uniquely spiritual experience.

Wendy Given (American, born 1971) lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Given holds an MFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art. Her work has been exhibited nationally at whitespace (Atlanta—representing Given’s work in the Southeast), Fifth Floor (Los Angeles), Chelsea Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, The Art Gym at Marylhurst University (Oregon), Blue Sky (Oregon), and CoCA (Washington). Her work was included in 31 Women in Art Photography by Humble Arts Foundation in conjunction with Hasted Kraeutler in 2012, and is in the upcoming exhibition Sanctified at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles opening this February.

Gregory CrewdsonJeff WallWendy Given


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