by Renny Pritikin
I once organized an exhibition in collaboration with an art history professor. It was particularly challenging because she wanted to cover the walls with text, demonstrating a misunderstanding of the difference between a book and an art exhibition. Jen Bervin avoids that pitfall. Reconciling prose and visual art she produces new hybrid forms that combine the pleasures of simple sculpture and elevated poetic language. Two ideas are key to understanding the exhibition. The visitor needs to approach the art on view, knowing that it all is some kind of book, even if it initially may not appear so. Second, we must keep in mind that the artist sets herself enormously difficult and time-consuming tasks as central to her fabrication process, reflecting her dedication, seriousness and long-term commitment.
An example of her labor-intensive approach is River (2006-18) installed on the ceiling. It is an accurate map of the Mississippi River from its source to the sea, made up of 230 feet of silver foil-stamped sequins sewn onto book-binding cloth, which is, in part, what ties it to the theme of an extended form of bookmaking. At a scale of one inch to one mile, it took her about as much time to make as it would have taken to walk the length of the river, according to the gallerist. Installed on the ceiling it resembles a splayed-out book, it is a curvy spine, a backbone for the American continent.
The Sea exists as both an artist’s book and an installation. Bervin printed out text fragments from John Van Dyke’s 1906 book, The Opal Sea: Continued Studies in Impressions and Appearances, and stitched over most of the original words, placing meticulous silver zigzag stitches over each letter. She did, however, leave a few phrases intact, and in the literary tradition of the cut-up, they cohere to form abstract but haunting poetic wholes when read serially. The text is laid out at waist height on two simple wooden frames, covering approximately 36 linear feet.
Many of the pieces on view here were originally part of a survey of Bervin’s work at Illinois State University that was interrupted by the covid shutdown. Collectively titled Source, they fill Catharine Clark’s newly expanded space. Bervin is best known locally for her earlier presentation at the gallery, where she wrestled with and transformed the work of Emily Dickinson. Another of Bervin’s long-term commitments is to elucidate what she argues is Dickinson’s experimental and unique formal innovations. Her earlier iteration dealt with Dickinson’s jottings on paper fragments and envelopes,
suggesting a dramatically more open way to read her work—as a kind of precursor to hypertext. In an ongoing series called The Dickinson Composites (2004—ongoing), consisting of six large-scale (72 x 96 inch) embroidered quilts, the artist re-creates under-appreciated punctuation-like marks and other text-related fragments that are routinely omitted when the poems are published. Bervin and others argue that these marks are integral parts of the poet’s system of offering different word choices and, thus, alternative readings of her work. The quilts are elegant minimalist objects, but suffer from redundancy.
Measure (after Susan Hiller), embodies another approach to sculptural bookmaking. Hiller, a British-American conceptual artist, is known for having burned work and displayed the ashes annually, from 1972 on, to clear psychic space and move on. Bervin pays homage to Hiller by burning selections from 20 years of her own journals and encasing the ashes in 15 glass tubes, each of which is printed with a line of poetry from the journals on the outside. As in other work, the artist embraces the possibility that viewers will read them in any order they choose.
Bervin has several works about the human relationship with silkworms, insects that have become dependent on us for survival because of our breeding choices. As a result, they can no longer fly or feed themselves adequately in nature. (A short video of her visit to a Chinese silk factory documents her research.) She also displays a book of poems written from the silkworm’s perspective. They are at once reconciled and despondent. The writing is subtle and tragic and in no way sentimental. An interesting fact about silk is that it is medically neutral. Meaning, that if implanted in humans, the body doesn’t attack it as a foreign invader. With that knowledge, Bervin took her bookmaking in a radical new direction; she collaborated with Tufts University to translate the worm’s genetic code into poetry printed in liquified silk to be implanted as a biosensor under a person’s skin in a helix-like swirl. Not a tattoo—too clunky; not a chip—too technological. The recipient, thus, becomes an animate book. Combined, these efforts form a tour de force of research-as-art that incorporates text art and scientific thought into contemporary practice.
# # #
Jen Bervin: “Source” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through June 10, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.