January 28, 2013

Seeing Things

by Bridget Esangga

With the steady hand of a chemist, SAIC alumna Vesna Jovanovic (BFA 2003) pours ink onto paper, creating colorful Rorschach-test images on which she draws the forms that reveal themselves to her. The east wall of her sunlit studio in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood is lined with rows of these inkblots in various stages of production—some with blotches of ink morphing into scientific-looking drawings of human intestines, bones, and organs along with the roots, stems, leaves, and fruit of plants, while others are just the inkblots themselves. 

The drawings are part of a series called Pareidolia, a word that means the phenomenon of seeing an image or pattern where none exists—a face in the clouds or a Virgin Mary in a water stain, for instance. It is intuitive work that Jovanovic executes with planning, research, and control suggestive of her scientific training.

“My chemistry degree definitely influences how I think and how I approach various subjects,” she says. It is evident in the meticulously labeled flat files in her studio, her methods of observation and documentation, and her technique for pouring ink. But the work is pure art. Her realistic drawings are experimental, showing a masterfully rendered spinal column with flowers growing out of it, organs interspersed with plant life and architectural forms—not depicting the body accurately, but exploring what it feels like to have a body and “how it’s perceived socially, medically, and spiritually.”

Jovanovic was born in Chicago and grew up in the former Yugoslavia. She returned to Chicago at the age of 14, relearned English, and made the city her home. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Ceramics and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Loyola University before enrolling at SAIC where she worked mainly in the Photography department making pinhole cameras. Today she uses the cameras she made as a student to photograph mushrooms she finds during her excursions with the Illinois Mycological Association.

The Pareidolia series also grew out of work she started at SAIC during a class with Barbara Rossi. “I really felt that I needed to experiment more, so I took that class actively looking for a way to break out of what I was doing up to that point…. Of course the work has expanded, but I still feel the influence from that class,”Jovanovic explains. 

This summer, Jovanovic will use a grant she won through the Illinois Arts Council to return to the Santa Fe Art Institute for a residency. The high-altitude dessert environment gives her a new lens for viewing the body. When she was there in 2011, she felt the effects of mountain sickness. “I was really interested in how my body was reacting to this new environment and the altitude, and I felt that it was really interesting to explore that while I was experiencing it, so I started drawing how dry my skin was,” she says.

Her work has shown at Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science, Fermilab, and University of Chicago’s Center for Integrative Science. And she currently has one piece on exhibition at Packer Schopf Gallery through February 16. 

Jovanovic finds that scientists and the medical community are particularly drawn to her work and respond positively to her exhibitions in scientific venues. She says, “I think because it’s a different way of looking at the body than what they’re used to. It presents a new question or challenge—why is there this house here in this particular organ; what does that mean; and what can we say about that?” 

Sign up for a monthly newsletter to stay up to date with Jovanovic’s exhibitions and events. She also invites artists and SAIC alumni to join her monthly artists’ meeting called the Feedback Loop