Photography background

Dirt is matter out of place. It’s the
concept of uncleanliness, the disorder
of our world, according to the
anthropologist Mary Douglas. The concept of the
unclean, a symptom of chaotic and marginal
aspects of society stratifies Wrenn’s artistic world.
“Although my photographs can be seen as rituals in
and of themselves, they are not meant to cure, but
rather to manifest the marginal categories of
Early influences included her news/war
correspondent father, Roger Wrenn, who
introduced his daughter to the darkroom and its
chemicals when she was six. Her mother, an avid
art gallery visitor and amateur painter, instilled a
love of paints and exhibitions. Jenny Wrenn owned
her first oil paints at age 11 and her first twin lense
reflex at age 12. In the 1960s she bit the turf when
accidently tackled as she photographed a football
game for her high school newspaper. Several years
later when she was staff photographer for the La
Jolla Light and Journal newspaper, she
photographed the scene of a scuba diver who

drown off the La Jolla Shores.

She returns to the emotions of fear,
loss and tragedy again and again in her work.

She moved to San Francisco in 1970 to
complete a degree in Philosophy while
working as a nightclub photographer at
The Top of the Mark and Fairmont hotels. Falling
back on this line of work to make a living, she later
worked as a “camera girl” in Los Angeles’
Chinatown in the early 80s at the famed Hong
Kong Café, a seminal punk rock venue.
She published photographs in lesbian
publications such as Women, a journal of
liberation, On Our Backs, and Amethyst, a
journal for lesbians and gays. And her work
often reflects a lesbian sensibility, i.e. her work
titled Findings of the Heart refers to Djuna
Barne’s book Nightwood: The deposits of the
heart are analogous to the findings in a tomb. She
changed “the findings in a tomb” to “the findings of
the heart,” just as she visually transformed the
empty, receptacle image of vagina as tomb into the
image of a heart, an active and vital organ.
Through the juxtaposition of the scribbles with
powerful genital images, she created a work about
sexual rejection and sexual affirmation. Before the

“Frida Kahlo ‘revolution’”
hit Los Angeles in the 90s, Wrenn
traveled to Mexico City, probably
1975, and became enraptured by Frida Kahlo’s
work at an exhibition and at her museum/home.
Frida infused her own pain in her paintings. Wrenn
later portrayed pain in her own work by marking
almost defacing her photographs. Ironically both
artists were daughters of photographers.
In 1980 the art critic James Hugunin wrote
a serious study of Wrenn’s work in the Visual
Studies Workshop publication, Afterimage.
He wrote:
Her work can be classified as documentary
in the sense that an event is recorded, but she also
extends the idea of document to include a physical
transfer of information from subject to
photographic object.... The first inkling of
something different in Wrenn’s attitude toward the
medium occurred in a visual/verbal “conceptual”
piece of 1977. Chipped In was a two-print series
depicting a ceramic cup photographed first from
above, with coins inside the cup, then from the
side, obscuring the coins but revealing a small
chip in the side of the cup. The title became an
integral part of the total concept, similar to the
captions and text which accompany newsphotos or
ads. Here Wrenn begins to show her interest in
documenting an event (the coins placed in the cup)
and the physical trace or imprint of an event – in
this case, of an object having wrought damage to
the cup (the chip).... The work has some similarity
to Eileen Cowin’s visual/verbal puns of around the
same time (although neither artist was familiar
with the other’s work). The conceptual basis for
the puns post-dated Ed Ruscha’s and Bruce
Nauman’s overt punning (remember Nauman’s
Waxing Hot?).
....Then an event occurred which allowed
her to make a bold leap in her work, and allowed
her to combine her previous penchant for direct
handworking on the photographic surface with her
vocation in reportage. On Sept. 25, 1978, PSA
flight 182 crashed in San Diego, killing all on
board. Wrenn used her press pass to enter the
crash scene and photograph the aftermath of that
disaster....Readily apparent to Wrenn upon first
seeing the destruction of the houses and the streets
where the large jet tore into the earth was the
sense of a large, ugly wound, a horrendous imprint
of a now demolished airplane. Thus began her
series of eighteen 16x20 prints in which she used
selective toning (using rubber cement to hold back
the toning process in certain areas, and using
different RC papers to achieve slight variations in
tone with the same toner), and grease pencil to
mark on the print surface, emphasizing certain
points of particular destruction. She also used
selective exposure to darken or lighten particular
areas. But because Wrenn did not blend the
exposure changes (as in dodging-in or burning-in),
distinct forms were created on the prints. For
example, in one instance Wrenn placed several
layers of lens tissue on top of the print during the
exposure, producing lighter, veiled areas which
seemed to express a sense of spiritual energy in
contract to the darker tonalities and the sheer
materiality of the wreckage....the plane crash was
not merely seen by the camera, but felt by the
artist and made acutely tangible to us as feeling
beings. Here we did not have a simple record of
an event masking as somehow summarizing or
totalizing the event, but an obvious aestheticizing
gesture which at once distances the event yet
brings the viewer back into the event at a
completely new level of understanding. The
tragedy becomes a simile for all other tragedies,
for any intrusion of chaos into ordered reality.
And here again, Hugunin reiterates the concept of
marginality and disorder, the dirt, which fascinates
Wrenn. Dirt is the product of a systematic ordering
and classification of matter, in so far as ordering
involves rejecting inappropriate elements, wrote
Mary Douglas.

From Photography to Mixed Media

Photography, however, didn’t remain the only
medium Wrenn worked in. Turning to other
media, she studied neon fabrication with Lily
Lakich. Here she used photography tangentially to
create neon sculptures in her Funeral Rites series,
1984. This series of 4 sculptures and five wall
collages grew out of the PSA plane crash series.
Instead of focusing sole on the plane crash, Wrenn
zeroed in on loss, grief and the custom of funerals.
It was the ritual of integrating order from disorder,
that interested her. As she had created artwork
from Djuna Barne’s book, so she designed an
installation inspired by Jean Genet’s book Funeral
Rites. These pieces were fabricated out of a
variety of materials, neon, mirror, wooden dowels,
drywall, plaster, photographs and debris, i.e. a
doll’s head, a car nameplate, flash bulbs. She
recorded herself reading various passages from
Genet’s book and wrote quotations on the walls of
the installation room within her art studio. The
work, however, was never exhibited beyond her
studio where it gained a limited, invited audience.
During this period of her artistic career,
Wrenn explored other mixed media techniques such
as the assemblage. On 36"x36" Masonite board she
glued clothespins, some wrapped with animal skin
or wire, bolts of various sizes. She then hammered
nails through the back. She painted the entire piece
white. A smaller version became the cover for her
first book art, “White Clothespins.” Included
within the book are linoleum cuts of various bdsm
poses and another working of the photographs
from the series Prometheus Says Love Your
The series titled Prometheus Says Love
Your Eagle consists of five 11x14 photographs,
hand-colored on rag printing paper with photoemulsion.
They were produced in 1982 shortly
after The Findings of the Heart. Here again
there is a reference to a book, Andre Gide’s
Prometheus Misbound.

Jenny Wrenn
Private studio location by appointment only
Long Beach, CA 90802


About Art

WrennArt showcases the work of Jenny Wrenn, who's artwork consists of a diverse range of materials, from painting, drawing and photography to ebooks and mixed media.


For those interested in exhibiting or purchasing some of these works, please contact the artist. In some cases the works are not available.  Some works will be in private or public collections and noted as such.

More detailed information on the various works, specific series, artist intentions and techniques is available here.