Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Fabric of Jen Bervin’s Work

MCA Denver invited artist Derek Beaulieu to guest blog during the duration of the exhibition Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art, in which excerpts from Beaulieu's 124-painting sequence the Newspaper are featured. Beaulieu is the author of 9 books of poetry and conceptual fiction. He teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design and can be found online at:  www.derekbeaulieu.wordpress.comThis is the second of four blogs for MCA Denver.
In this blog, Derek Beaulieu focuses on the work of Jen Bervin, one of 102 artists whose work appears in the current MCA Denver exhibition Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art. Her works, The Composite Marks of  Fascicle 28 and The Composite Marks of Fascicle 40, remove the words from Emily Dickinson's published poetry and retain only the editorial marks, insertions, and amendments found in her original handwritten manuscripts.

My first exposure to Jen Bervin’s work was though her Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004) in which she erases sections of Shakespeare’s sonnets in order to create fragile poems of beautiful telegraph-like brevity. Shakespeare’s sonnet 2 (“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”) is, for example, condensed and transformed into “a weed of small worth / asked / to be new made.” The “weed of small worth / asked / to be new made” is an ongoing concern in Bervin’s work, as she harvests poetic gestures emerging from the poetic ground of other poets’ work. Her work has a melancholic tone as she focuses on creation through absence: a writing of the holes in literature.

An excerpt from Bervin's work in speechless #6
Bervin’s typographic work in speechless #6 [PDF] and I’ll Drown my Book: Conceptual Writing by Women uses the typewriter to compose weaving diagrams, foregrounding the unexpected similarities between the grid created by the typewriter (as suggested by Charles Olson, for example) and the grid created by the warp and weft of weaving, asserting the text in textile. Bervin writes in her brief afterword to speechless #6:
I typed these works on a Brother Correctronic 50 typewriter. I think of them as scores to be performed on a loom or with needle and thread. All of them were made following intensive time spent weaving cloth structures on the loom but refer back to draft notation, the pre-weaving diagrams a weaver creates or consults. They were inspired by Anni Albers’ typewriter studies from Black Mountain College (the impetus for my desire to study weaving). It was quickly apparent to me that her profound understanding of cloth structure gave her a unique perspective on the gridded space the typewriter offers.
Bervin’s assertion that the typewriter can create scores for performance makes weaving a readerly-writerly act.

Bervin's The Composite Marks of Emily Dickinson's Fascicle 28.
Extending her typewriter-driven work, Bervin has turned to an on-going engagement with Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and correspondence. Her work in Postscript is excerpted from a series of quilt-sized fabric responses to Emily Dickinson’s poetry manuscripts. Notoriously reclusive, Dickinson created a series of fascicles (hand-sewn packets of manuscript pages) that featured not only her handwritten poems but also her idiosyncratic amendments, insertions and editorial marks. Bervin uses these marks as inspiration for her large-scale embroidered works; each piece transforms Dickinson’s palimpsests of crosses, marginalia, tics and textual insertions into fragile marks formed from thousands of individual stitches and placed in testament to the hand-sewing that Dickinson herself did when compiling her fascicles.

Bervin's The Composite Marks of  Fascicle 28. (detail)
While Dickinson secluded herself, her oeuvre formed with poems and letters, her fascicles and her own physical absence. Bervin’s “The Composite Marks of Emily Dickinson's Fascicle 28,” as shown in Postscript, elides Dickinson’s poems in favour of her private editorial marks—the marks which weren’t exposed in correspondence. Bervin’s fragile stitches echo the thread that held Dickinson’s own books together and stood as a private—and unknown until after her death—testament to her poetic craft. Bervin, in Nets, in her poems in speechless and especially in her responses to Dickinson, creates melancholic testaments to poetry, secluding the original author in favour of erasure, private marks and maps for creation.
Thanks to Jesse Leaneagh for inviting me to be the official blogger for Postscript: Writing after Conceptual Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Thanks also to Andrea Andersson and Nora Abrams Burnett, the curators of the exhibition.

Image credit top: Install shot of Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28, 2006.


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