Joshua Halberstam (2020)

Catalina Chervin’s exquisite drawings beckon us to look, to really look at a work of art -to step closer, to draw back, to step closer again. The careful observer oscillates between a focus on the intricate, minute strokes and the larger images they produce. In Chervin’s work, both attentions are required; indeed, the one demands the other.

Chervin’s fibrous filaments trace, in part, to the distinguished legacy of micrography. The micrographical tradition was initiated by 9th century Masoretic scribes active in Tiberias. The production of calligrams of scriptural texts, the rendering of minute Hebrew letters, allowed those scribes to embellish biblical texts with representational images without violating the second commandment’s prohibition against the making of graven images. Jewish micrography later drew from, and was enhanced by, Muslim architectural and decorative ornamentations (one should note that in the middle ages, 90% of Jews lived in Islamic countries), but micrography as a Jewish art form lies not only in its origins, but also in its continued existence. Handed down from one scribe to another, generation after generation, it spread from Israel and Egypt southward to Yemen and northward to Europe and was eventually incorporated into traditional Jewish documents such as marriage contracts (the Ketubah), as it is to this day.

While Chervin’s interlacing network of marks do not produce recognizable texts or involve the Hebrew alphabet (though hints of such sometimes appear in her work), the micrographical heritage is readily apparent in her work. Indeed, her drawings carry that tradition into original territory. Here, minute lines do not stand apart but intersect and loop into one another, crisscrossing, weaving both raw and delicate textures. The startling effects evoke the accompanying mystical tradition of micrography: kabbalah. Tiberias was not only the venue of micrography’s origins, but also the wellspring of this mystical tradition in which the veneration of the Hebrew alphabet, the shape of the letters and their numerological equivalences, is essential as evidenced in its frequent micrographical deployment. Chervin’s drawings
educe this tradition not only in its painstaking attention to detail, but in the kabbalistic emphasis on the interplay of the dense and the delicate, the dark and the light.

The somber elements of the artist’s familial and personal history provide a relevant backstory to the tenebrous tensions in her condensed patches. These individual marks, barely perceptible on their own, conjoin as something entirely more, as if to remind us that the magnitude of a historical wrong is always comprised of individual tragedies, each a story of its own. At the same time, a cluster of neighboring precise lines also converges to produce extraordinary elegance and grace.

Although the minute details of Chervin’s drawings hark back to the old micrographic tradition, the call to step back and study her works from a distance distinguish them, and bring them into the sphere of contemporary art. One is invariably astonished at how Chervin’s finely wrought lines and accompanying spaces can capture such a multiplicity of moods and perspectives. This is something special: a celebration of determined diligence that is at once compelling in its seriousness and resplendent in its refinement.



* Dr Joshua Halberstam
is currently Professor at BCC/City University of New York where he teaches communications and philosophy. Before teaching at BCC, Dr. Halberstam taught philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York University and the New School for Social Research.  He has published widely in the areas of epistemology, ethics, the philosophy of art, and the philosophy of religion. 



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