San Francisco

Jen Bervin, Close Reading 169 “Grasped by God –”, 2021, cotton batting, muslin, thread, 2 1⁄2 × 9 3⁄4".

Jen Bervin, Close Reading 169 “Grasped by God –”, 2021, cotton batting, muslin, thread, 2 1⁄2 × 9 3⁄4".

Jen Bervin

A subtle question asks itself not in words but as a feeling, a disquiet amplified over time, when an artwork takes root in the mind and the imagination grasps a difficult lesson: that an ethics is forming inside an aesthetics. But walking away from Jen Bervin’s exhibition “Doing and Undoing,” I felt such a realization growing in me. Bervin has taken fragments of language that Emily Dickinson originally scrawled on small scraps of paper—sometimes just a single word—magnified them sixfold, then embroidered them with silver thread on fabric grounds made from cotton batting, muslin, and mull. Dickinson’s notes, written with who knows what intent, gain a different status and gather to them a rare attention via Bervin’s tender replications. I suspect this very quality of consideration is the artist’s main concern. One is transformed from a viewer to a reader, and the art is a kind of translation, of deciphering the quick hand of a poet jotting language down at the speed of thought. Lightning-quick inspiration is slowed to wondrous delay, as if contemplation and perception themselves have been caught by the silver tether of the New England mystic’s pencil lead and translated into thread.

MOST ARROWS, one fragment says (or does it claim?); the phrase nearly fills the entirety of the blown-up fascicle (all works 2021). Elsewhere, SLOTH is sewn into the left-hand corner of the fabric; the word stands listlessly inside an ample amount of white space, as if committing the sin it names. This sense that the poem—and its magnification by the artist—is a test of the rules we have been given, an experiment of the self upon the world it is born to, is but one part of the generous difficulties Bervin opens for us. The blank page itself is an existential dare, as in another piece: EMERGING FROM / AN ABYSS AND / ENTERING IT AGAIN— / THAT IS LIFE IS / IT NOT? Subtly and profoundly, the artist reminds us: Dickinson’s quicksilver jots question the universe.

But Bervin also prompts us to ask other questions, which are part and parcel of the moral complexities and complicities we stumble through half-blindly today. The approach is found in this work of enlargement—not of Dickinson’s handwriting per se, but of the materials the words are sewn on. The hand-dyed batting haptically mimics the cotton-based paper of the mid-nineteenth century—the very material on which soldiers in the Civil War would write home—as well as the cotton that forged the shackles of the ongoing horror of slavery. Now that disquiet grows louder. Now we sense that even thoughts of the greatest beauty or whimsy, even words that pierce the heart of the human condition, occur on a barren page that reminds us of our hypocrisy. It is an unspoken and unspeakable thing. It is also what Bervin is giving us to see. We must learn to read that blankness.

The show was titled after a French saying, something of a Bervin family motto: Faire at defaire c’est travailler (Doing and undoing is the work). That phrase was sewn into three separate white cloths, each in a different hand: a child’s, an adult’s, and an elder’s. A looped video—the exhibition’s namesake—captured those hands printing out the aphorism and then, with a simple bit of cinematic trickery, making it disappear. The child labors over her letters, but the film is then reversed and the forms vanish, their thick lines swallowed up by the pencil that made them. The screen doubles, and an adult hand writes and unwrites the phrase simultaneously. Another hand erases the phrase translated into English and writes it again, traces of the previous version visible still. So I’m brought to the questions I’m still asking myself: How does one create and not create at once? How does one do and undo in the same gesture? It seems to me Bervin is trying to envision such an art. And to Emily Dickinson’s question “Unto the Whole—how add?” the artist has a quietly astonishing answer. Don’t. Magnify what is already there so that we may learn to see more decently.