The Rorschach Paintings

Artifacts / by Vesna Jovanovic /

In creating her new series, Pareidolia, artist and chemist Vesna Jovanovic detected biomorphic and medical forms in blots of ink.

New Mitosis; Vesna Jovanovic, 2009

I spent my formative years in the Mediterranean, where I was surrounded by unusual plants, insects, sea creatures, and rock formations. As an inherently curious and creative person, I began drawing and painting, as well as pressing leaves, collecting seashells, and storing various pods and seeds in jars. In addition to my established interest in pursuing art as a career, I eventually became seriously intrigued by science, particularly chemistry, and went on to pursue a double degree in art and chemistry as an undergraduate at Loyola University Chicago.

Art and science are generally considered very separate today; they have very different connotations, even stereotypes associated with them. Yet I find that my interest in these two fields stems from the same place: a deep curiosity about the world and the human position within it. Ironically, one of my biggest frustrations as an art student was the accuracy and precision that I could not let go of. I wanted to work more from the imagination, to leave some things to chance; I wanted to create opportunities for unpredictability and serendipity—for numerous “happy accidents.”

In 2002, I enrolled in an advanced drawing course at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This course took me in the direction that eventually led to the series of drawings that I am working on today. One of the assignments was to create an inkblot and then use it as a guide for drawing. Initially, I struggled with the imagery. I tried projecting landscapes, human figures, animals…but they all seemed forced. One day something materialized more unaffectedly and effortlessly. In the curved streams of spilled ink, I began to see flasks and rubber tubing.

I continued developing these drawings beyond my time at SAIC. I began experimenting with various types of papers and inks and a range of new methods of applying ink to paper (spilling, sponging, blotting, and even masking certain areas and then spilling more ink over them). As my drawings developed, my glassware and tubing began turning into veins, intestines, and neurons. This probably happened as a result of the organic nature of the ink; the curved lines and streams were becoming increasingly reminiscent of biomorphic forms. I eventually titled the series Pareidolia, a term used to describe the psychological phenomenon of recognizing specific, identifiable forms in otherwise random stimuli. Common examples of pareidolia are the recognition of animals in clouds or faces in wood grain, and it is the basis of the Rorschach test, the series of inkblots used by psychologists to gain insight into a patient’s mental state.

One of my more recent pieces, “New Mitosis,” [Shown Above] began as a spill of diluted black ink on the left side of a large (66cm x 101cm) sheet of watercolor paper, which I folded along the vertical axis to blot the ink and then pipetted six droplets of my favorite brown ink on top. The ink seemed to come from a batch with a factory defect: It looked more red than brown, had lumps of some sort of precipitate, separated into two liquids, and acted quite unpredictably when combined with other media (branching out, spilling unevenly, streaming in unexpected directions). If I had come across this ink before I began working on the Pareidolia series, I probably would have dumped the ink and bought a new bottle. But with time and experience I have learned the value of pausing to consider, at least for a quick moment, if anything could benefit from what appears to be a problem or mistake. I believe that it is these moments of apparent setbacks that are actually some of the most valuable in both art and science. They break the normal flow of events, introducing a junction that can lead to greater, more significant discoveries.

Once the ink dried, the translucent gray tone reminded me of glass, metal, and smoke. I began drawing imaginary devices with ball bearings, glass bulbs, and cables, choosing to leave the red droplets unresolved. The symmetrical nature of the inkblot gave the finished drawing the look of being stretched and split across the center of the paper. I also noticed that the untouched red spots obscured the scale of the image. Despite the glassware and tubing around them, the red spots suggested a microscopic scale, specifically a group of cells. This combination is what ultimately led to the title for the piece, “New Mitosis.” I imagined this scenario as a set of cells splitting with the help or intervention of some strange, mysterious equipment, and the piece began to inadvertently evoke questions about biotechnology and genetic research.

Science in our society is a key source of information about the world—conversely a source of awe, admiration, and fear (the way religion once was). Pareidolia conveys both the curiosity and fear that are often associated with scientific research; the chaos of spilled ink is seen in contrast with the detailed and calculated, yet absurd configurations of tubing and glassware drawn on top of it. In a sense, I have created my own Rorschach test—one that that had tapped into my deep-rooted attraction to the chemistry lab, both visually and conceptually. Ultimately, I find that science and art are complementary to each other and equally important in social significance and function. Science strives to provide answers about the world, while art strives to inspire questions.

Selections from Pareidolia are on view at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago through October 16, 2009.

Originally published August 18, 2009

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