Jana Brevick: This Infinity Fits in My Hand
These days it is easy to be nervous about our ever-increasing interaction with science and technology. Hackers break into our financial accounts. Drivers text instead of looking at the road. Our children will not get off their iPads. Drones can photograph you at your backyard cookout. But if you happen to be in western Washington, there is a way to ease your apprehensions. Visit Jana Brevick’s smart, charming and often humorous retrospective showing at the Bellevue Arts Museum through August 16, 2015.
Brevick is a Seattle jewelrymaker and sculptor with a life-long interest in math, science and technology. No doubt she could have been a tech wizard. Instead she earned degrees in metal arts and apparel design and became one of the region’s most engaging artists. Over the years she has made jewelry and sculpture inspired by geometrical equations, chemistry charts, astronomy, space travel, deep-sea research, electronics, and robotics, among other science fair worthy subjects. But as this exhibition of some eighty pieces demonstrates, in Brevick’s world science is cool. Math is elegant. Technology has history and style. The pieces were made from 1998 through 2015.
The first display case as you enter the exhibition contains four robots on chains, wearable as necklaces. These helpful little guys and one robot gal are mostly sterling silver, punctuated with features of gold, plastic, gemstones, and found objects. At about eight inches long, they have loosey-goosey, articulated joints and benign expressions. They are miniature versions of what might happen if C-3PO and the Tin Man had offspring. Snackbot is especially endearing. Open the combination lock on his torso and out pops a tiny bag of chips, a chocolate bar, an apple, and some pop. Who would not want this android around the house?
Mathematically inspired pieces include silver earrings twisted into Mobius strips and a cleverly engineered ring representing a Venn diagram of overlapping discs of pure metals and alloys. There are silver neckpieces resembling three-dimensional geometric equations. Parallel, from the Intergalactic Parallax Series, is a sleek, chic, silver neckpiece that refers to the parallax principle. If you cannot quite recall parallax from high school physics, it is the effect that occurs when a stationary object appears to be in different locations depending on the angle from which you are viewing it. This is a useful principle when measuring the distance of stars from the earth, among other things.
You do not have to whip out your smart phone and look up the meaning of Brevick’s jewelry titles. But I often did, and it was enlightening. Her neckpiece called Moh’s Scratch Test Minerals is a string of aspirin-sized mineral samples on a sloping wire, all framed in a silver rectangle. There is a numeral 1 at the bottom left next to a droplet of talc. There is a numeral 10 at the top right side next to a tiny, uncut diamond. In between are samples of gypsum, quartz, topaz, and other minerals. Metalsmiths and geologists know exactly what this chart is, since it is a measure of the hardness of minerals, with talc being the softest and diamond the hardest. And now, thanks to this striking neckpiece, I know that too.
Brevick has a historian’s soft spot for outdated technology. What was once cutting edge is now a footnote, a mere paving stone on the never-ending forward march of science. Her rings made of vacuum tubes from the 1940s—believe it or not these were used in early computers—honor that once state-of-the-art technology. Even her humorous 2001 wedding ring set made of an ethernet jack is starting to seem old fashioned now that Wi-Fi is the new normal. There are also plenty of sturdy black plastic knobs and dials in this show, all repurposed from mid-twentieth-century appliances into jewelry or small sculpture.
There are pieces about the immutable laws of physics and metallurgy and the highly mutable human heart. Included are some of Brevick’s Everchanging Rings, which are pure gold rings that she melts down and redesigns on a periodic basis for each buyer. The idea is conceptual; each redesign uses exactly the same materials as its former iteration. But the process is also a litmus test for owners of the rings, who must measure the passage of time and changes in their lives with the physical change in the ring. Over the years Brevick has discovered that some owners of Everchanging Rings become so attached to one design phase that they are reluctant to have the rings re-designed. Change can be tough. Also in the show are large necklaces made of such materials as thick black coiled electrical cord and eight-inch-long wooden floats that may have been harvested from crab traps. The large and cheerful pieces have a slightly ethnic look, as though taken from the jewelry box of a stylish Amazon.
Finally, there is a spaceship. It is perhaps no great surprise given Brevick’s fascination with outer limits that she has built a life-sized passageway that visitors walk through as though approaching the Starship Enterprise command center. The best part of the installation, which she calls Atomic Exfiltrator Ship Seven, is the series of “portholes.” Peer through a porthole and you see the pitch black of infinite space. But you also get a peek at a tiny spacecraft, perhaps something NASA thrust into the heavens and forgot about. One of my favorites is Broadcast, a sterling silver, steel and fine gold saucer and tower that seems to be on a lonely, never-ending voyage, trying to communicate with whatever is out there.
Brevick’s intellectual curiosity is infectious. Science and technology give her entry into new worlds of discovery and constant delight. Spend a few minutes looking at her work and you, too, will likely find yourself cheerfully optimistic. We humans make many mistakes on a very grand scale. But Brevick’s work suggests that the adventurers among us will always seek solutions that extend the boundaries of our universe.
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Robin Updike is a Seattle writer who has followed the Pacific Northwest’s rich metal arts scene for several decades. She first spent time with Jana Brevick and her work in 2005, when Updike wrote a profile on Brevick for Ornament in Volume 29, No. 2. Now, a decade later, Updike is pleased to have the opportunity to consider Brevick’s first solo museum show, a retrospective organized and presented by the Bellevue Arts Museum. “Jana’s work is always compelling,” says Updike. “Her ability to blend intellectual exploration with humor and craftsmanship is no easy feat. Yet that particular alchemy is her signature as an artist.”