Datebook: University Galleries 'Reflects' Artist/Poet's First Survey Of Work | WGLT

Datebook: University Galleries 'Reflects' Artist/Poet's First Survey Of Work

Oct 8, 2020

Poetry and textiles entwine in a new exhibition by an interdisciplinary artist who draws her inspiration from the words we read and the materials we caress. 

University Galleries is currently featuring the first survey of work by artist and poet Jen Bervin. Highlighting 23 solo and collaborative projects, as well as artist’s books, “Shift Rotate Reflect, Selected Works (1997-2020)” allows gallery visitors a chance to delve into what fascinates Bervin. 

The artist enjoys exploring the relationships between textiles and text, and the fine details of the mind of a great American poet. This is the first survey of Bervin’s work. 

“It’s rewarding and exciting to be the institution that has brought all of this work together for the first time,” said Kendra Paitz, University Galleries director and chief curator. “She’s exhibited her work internationally, but multiple projects haven’t been brought together.” 

This isn’t the first time Bervin has had her work displayed at University Galleries. A previous showing included a sculpture for the celestial-themed show, “An Intimate and Omnivorous Sky,” that was up earlier this year.  

“Each time I’ve shown her work, people have really connected with it, they’ve gravitated toward it,” Paitz revealed. “At University Galleries, we’re trying to engage with people all the time, visiting classes and leading tours. So, we’re hearing what they think and we’re seeing what they’re responding to and noticing what they’re asking questions about and wanting more, more, more. 

“I feel like people just always connected to her work. There’s such a sense of wonder in so much of what she does. It connects with people. It’s exciting to be here and to see that through the years, and then bring it all together.” 

There’s more than 20 years of Bervin’s work on display in “Shift Rotate Reflect,” including her “River” installation--a scale model of the Mississippi River, one inch to one mile. “River” is hand-stitched in silver sequins and runs 230 curvilinear feet around the largest of the spaces in University Galleries. Bervin worked on “River” for 12 years; it has only been exhibited once before.

Silver sequins make the Mississippi in Jen Bervin's work, "River."
Credit Lyndsie Schlink / Illinois State University

“There’s just all these reflections and the light glitters off all these sequins. It’s a really incredible piece to share,” Paitz said.

The exhibition also features the premiere of an ambitious installation entitled, “Su Hui’s Picture of the Turning Sphere.” Created in collaboration with filmmaker Charlotte Lagarde, the work features a multi-channel video and textile installation that highlights Chinese poet Su Hui and her 4th-century reversible poem, “Xuanji Tu.” The poem is stitched in a 29 x 29-character grid atop an astronomical gauge and can be read in any direction, allowing for almost 8,000 possible interpretations.  

The installation also includes four videos projected on the gallery’s walls that include commentary from eight Chinese women, including an algorithmic game theorist, a calligrapher, an astrophysicist and literary scholars. The artists also worked with an embroidery studio in China to create two new versions of the poem on translucent silk screens. A video of the creation process is included in the installation. 

Bervin’s exploration of poetry continues in her project entitled, “The Dickenson Composites.” The works are a series of 6 x 8 feet embroideries that depict the variant marks of esteemed American poet Emily Dickinson.  

“She would make plus signs over certain words,” Paitz explained about Dickinson’s marks. “That meant that you could substitute another word in there. So, there was an alternate reading.”

The Dickinson Composites Series is comprised of stitched composites of the variant marks American poet Emily Dickinson used in her manuscripts to link alternate words and phrases. Here the marks are embroidered on a trio of quilts at University Galleries.
Credit Lyndsie Schlink / Illinois State University

Or not, actually. Paitz said the original variant marks and line breaks made by Dickinson were often omitted by editors. Enter, Jen Bervin. 

“These works that she’s created are kind of a mending and a restitution, bringing back her work,” said Paitz, adding the trio of embroidered quilts appear, at first glance, to be an abstraction. 

“We see all of these plus signs and dashes stitched in red. Each embroidery represents all the marks in one book. Each plus sign and each dash that you see stitched onto each quilt would be where it is in that whole book.” 

Bervin's "Silk Poem" is nanoimprinted in gold spatter. This piece is usually viewable on the provided LED microscope. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, interactive components are not allowed at University Galleries. It's still cool, though, no matter how you look at it.
Credit Lyndsie Schlink / Illinois State University

  Continuing the poetry theme in Bervin’s works is “Silk Poems,” where a silkworm takes something of a starring role. Teaming up with scientists at Tufts University, Bervin created a nanoimprinted poem on a silk biosensor. There’s also a book featuring a poem Bervin wrote from the perspective of a silkworm. It’s constructed in a six-character chain that corresponds to the DNA structure of silk. 

Due to the pandemic, University Galleries was forced to close its doors to the public in March, although shows continued online. Now, with new safety rules in place, visitors can once again stroll through the galleries by appointment. Reaction to “Shift Rotate Reflect” has been strong, said Paitz. 

“It’s been really wonderful! I’ve received the nicest email from community members and faculty. Several people have made repeat appointments.” 

“Shift Rotate Reflect, Selected Works (1997-2020)” remains on view at University Galleries through Dec. 13.



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