There is reason to note that many of the works in Wendy Given’s Turn Your Back to the Forest, Your Front to Me at Whitespace made their debut a few months earlier in a show titled How to Explain Magic to a Dead Rabbit at this ex-Atlanta artist’s Portland gallery. The title of that exhibition, an allusion to Joseph Beuys’s famed performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, indicates Given’s debt to mystical modernism.
The Illuminating Glass, the piece that inspired the previous show title, also appears at Whitespace. It places the dead (or taxidermic) rabbit in a diorama of fallen leaves enclosed in a large viewing box, and the glass in question is a lens inserted in a small aperture, allowing viewers a tiny, blurry view of the full-scale scene. This is a multiple-pun homage to Marcel Duchamp’s famed final work, Étant donnés, the full title of which is Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage. Or in the standard English translation, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas.
Given’s wit and multilayered allusion in these homages to modernist artists carries over into the dark, genuinely mysterious photographs that are the show’s dominant element. Impossible though these images may appear, the artist used less Photoshop than one might think.
Besom, for example, depicts a thoroughly convincing witch riding her traditional broom (a besom) low over a snowy landscape. Lazy viewers might assume that the image of the cloaked and hooded Given was inserted digitally; in fact, that part of the image is the physical result of endless leaps off the stump. The artist says it required 250 jumps to yield one sufficiently haunting composition.
Also a staged photograph, the most disorienting image in the show required only two elementary manipulations to accomplish a complete visual transformation. By the Boat of Charon presents a dark body of water with a small boat floating on it, its reflection clear in the rippling surface. But the ripples continue unexpectedly into the trees and mountains beyond the shoreline. That rippling shoreline, and the dark sky above it, appear completely undistorted in the presumed reflection that dominates the bottom half of the photograph.
Of course, the explanation is that Given inverted the photograph of the shoreline and its reflection in the lake, and she turned over the empty boat so as to appear right side up again. But the effect is one of a world that has turned unreliably wavering and spectral, while its reflected twin remains reassuringly solid even as it is viewed from an impossible and vertiginous perspective.
If this photograph seems to take us through the looking glass as mediated by classical myth (Charon was the boatman carrying the dead over Styx), the other photos offer magic that is more related to Central European folklore. The title of the Whitespace show comes from the Slavic tales of the witch Baba Yaga, whose chicken-footed cabin could be made to open only by a determined seeker declaring to it, “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.”
Baba Yaga’s cabin showed up earlier this season in a sculpture by Samuel Parker at Kibbee, where its meaning was consistently horrific. (Baba Yaga kidnaps small children, which is why a determined mother would set out on a rescue mission to her cabin.) But it may be germane to Given’s intention that Baba Yaga sometimes, though rarely, is sought out for her wisdom, has been known “to offer guidance to lost souls” (as Wikipedia puts it), and often gives the seeker something that is necessary to continue their quest.
Given believes that when taken in the correct imaginative spirit, folktales do offer portals into parts of ourselves that we normally don’t get to visit. In her work, this entails creating a sense of mystery leavened with humor, rather than with the ponderous seriousness that weighs down too much of literal magic and would-be mystery.
Hence the open-ended mystery of Of Myth and Magic No. 8: Ignis Fatuus, where the “foolish fire” of a will-o’-the-wisp glows beneath bleached-out tree trunks. The strange “illuminating gas” (to carry the Duchampian pun further) could be a natural product, or it might be something created by humans for unknown purposes.
Hence, too, the made-up myth illustrated in Of Augur and Auspice: No. 5 (From Under the Pillow), where a tethered white crow guards two tree hollows, one containing a treasury of small bones and another containing coins and human teeth. We have no way of knowing, until Given tells us, that this bird is the avian mount on which the Tooth Fairy rides to make the nightly exchange of children’s teeth for coinage. The unsettling creepiness of the combined imagery outweighs the comedy even after we learn this.
The surface of I Am That Merry Wanderer of the Night, an image of falling snow against the dark sky, glistens with Swarovski crystals that effectively communicate the sense of magic of the woods in eastern Oregon where Given made these photographs. The crystals may also be related to the ones that form a glittering surface on May You Get What You Want and Want What You Get, a sculpture of a wishing well that sits on a very tall pedestal, far above our reach.
In folktales, wishers often get something unwished-for, or something they only thought they wanted. In real life, wishes are often not only unfulfilled, but dependent for their fulfillment on some event or instrumentality that is forever out of reach. Given’s unattainable object, which promises the ignis fatuus of wish-fulfillment, is an excellent metaphor for this whole complex of ideas.
The transformed cuckoo clock of Cubiculum hangs on the wall across the gallery. Given suggests that the irresistibly sweet miniature diorama inside—a small bird tucked into bed, a book and candelabra at its bedside—represents what the hard-working cuckoo does after being worn out from announcing the hours.
This notion is charming even as we try not to notice the crutches leaning next to the bedpost, or the carved images of a dead bird and dead rabbit flanking the circular viewing portal of the clock’s housing, a black-painted wooden box.
Nothing that is given by Given is ever just one thing, and that is what makes Turn Your Back to the Forest, Your Front to Me one of the must-see exhibitions of this new year.
Wendy Given’s Turn Your Back to the Forest, Your Front to Me continues at Whitespace through February 26