Critics’ Picks

View of “Iowa Artists 2018: Jen Bervin” 2018–2019.

View of “Iowa Artists 2018: Jen Bervin” 2018–2019.

Des Moines

Jen Bervin

Des Moines Art Center
4700 Grand Avenue
October 19, 2018–January 27, 2019

Jen Bervin once described a friend’s hybrid art practice as “inexplicable work about knowledge,” which also seems to be the most succinct encapsulation of her own summary-defiant output. Moving freely between visual art and poetry, Bervin has produced more than a dozen strenuously researched and highly-regarded projects that include selective appropriations of Shakespeare's sonnets, reproductions of Emily Dickinson’s original fascicles and envelope poems, a palimpsest-like long-form poem written by stitching five thousand yards of blue thread through art historian John C. Van Dyke’s book The Desert (1901), and a love note written from the perspective of a silk worm, rendered on a biocompatible sensor made of silk. A maker attuned to wonder, Bervin produces fastidious and often collaboratively made artifacts that resist scholarly conclusiveness for the purpose of illuminating the process of understanding.

River, 2018, which took twelve years to complete, fits within this epistemological mode while deviating in its apparent lack of literary correlate. Crawling up and across the concrete walls and ceiling of the Des Moines Art Center, the curvilinear 230-foot-long sculpture traces the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its delta in New Orleans, taking the form of an intricate, intimate, laboriously hand-stitched textile of silver sequins on mull, a material used in bookbinding. The ceiling-oriented installation lends the viewer a “geocentric perspective,” requiring one to look up as though from the Earth’s core. As a native of Dubuque, Iowa (a city on the river), Bervin has said that she thinks of the Mississippi as a spine of the United States. It’s then suddenly clear that the poem is, in fact, there: text as textile, written in iterative craft, feminizing the heroic American mythos of conquest and industry while reflecting us as collaborators in unknowability and slow time.