Mythos: fantasy, fiction, legend, saga, parable, fable, narrative, invention, fabrication, yarn. The conceptual distance between myth and the concrete manifestations of mythology is a potentially endless—yet meaningfully orderable—list of synonyms. But with each word the gap shrinks, as mental images of processes and then objects emerge, even if just as puns. Wendy Given is bridging the gaps between the abstract idea of a mythos and its textural and visual components—the story.
Given’s work includes photography, sculpture, and installation, often combining all three to create imagery for mythologies and stories. These stories simultaneously capture and unite the literal and abstract components of the processes of mythmaking. She pays particular attention to the natural world and provides placeholders for the components of stories—characters, settings, objects, rituals—and in so doing constructs nearly identifiable narratives. It’s important to note that Given is neither illustrating existing stories nor inventing new ones—her practice does something in between. Her works are not quite archetypal, but they hold just enough familiarity to stimulate the imagination.
The Flowery Dream: Specimens 1-7 (2010) consists of seven mushrooms embedded in resin, each inside of a three-inch cube, displayed in a row like specimens in a natural-history museum or a research laboratory. The artist explains: “The magic exists in being able to view the cubes from all six sides, experiencing the mushrooms disembodied from the earth, loose from the soil, like a tiny floating spirit captured for all eternity.” One can imagine these seven mushrooms as magical remedies, healing ingredients, or even as poisons that a narrative’s villain would use in the plot of a primeval yet unidentifiable parable.
A particular quality of Given’s work reminds me of Damien Hirst’s notorious The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a great white shark encased in a glass chamber filled with formaldehyde. Given’s work does contain all the potential for death—or at least a psychedelic experience—but her installation is so much more personal and folkloric, as it presents an undetermined number of both physical possibilities and potential storylines. Each mushroom is neither a story nor is it not a story, but a series of potentialities—both actual and fabled.
On Myth and Magic (2009-2010), a body of C-print photographs, presents visual imagery that alludes to specific myths with props, figures, and scenery, but it focuses more on capturing the atmosphere of agelessness and the seductive mystery that makes so many myths endure in hearts and minds.
While No. 5: Eclipse’s (2009) eerie shadows, saturated greens, and diorama-like quality is purely atmospheric, On Myth and Magic No. 14: Chrysalis (2010) takes a step further into storytelling as a velvet-caped woman, with only part of an eye and a shock of blonde hair visible, lies amid spilled fruit and fabrics. One can begin to imagine so many possibilities as to what befell this sleeping, injured, or dead character as she made her way through the shadowy woods at night, yet no specifics emerge to point to one narrative or another. With this series of images, Given pushes the processes of storytelling right up against any specific narrative, frustrating the viewer only to revel in vague yet richly aestheticized visual and cultural clues.
Time and again Wendy Given uses the component parts of a visual language used for telling folkloric tales that are, as the artist says, “inspired by narrative literature from all over the world.” Given explores “[the] many similarities folkloric tales from divergent cultures share, and history, natural history, folklore, myth, allegory, and magic.” Her fascination with the natural world, which inspires and grounds her installations, photographs, and sculptures, contains a primordial-ness that defines her work and allows it to blur the lines between truth and fiction in believable and at times solely atmospheric ways.
Wendy Given is a visual artist living and working in Portland, Oregon. She has a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art, Atlanta, GA, and an MFA from Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, CA. Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions in Atlanta, GA; Portland, OR; Santa Monica, CA; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Los Angeles, CA; New York City; and Tacoma, WA. Given has also been awarded residencies at Signal Fire Alpenglow, Mt. Hood, OR; Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency, Joshua Tree, CA; and at Caldera Arts, Sisters, OR.