Artist gets ‘all in our head’

Inkblots on a white page conjure up a classic image: You lying on an expensive leather couch, a thick-lensed psychiatrist asking “What does this look like to you? What does this mean to you?” Better yet, “How does it make you feel: sad, angry, happy?”   The original Rorschach test, crafted by Hermann Rorschach in the early 20th century, is a form of projective psychological testing. When confronted with an inkblot, the patient’s response would provide insight into their personality for further analysis. Controversial for its subjectivity, the last place you’d expect to see Rorschach testing would be at an art gallery. However, Jessica Nissen’s work, currently on display in the Burlington City Arts (BCA) center, brings psychological analysis to gallery walls. More than 30 mixed media “Rorschach Drawings” from Brooklyn-based scenic artist Jessica Nissen’s “All in Our Head” series line the walls.  Her interpretations of each handcrafted inkblot range from colorful suburban landscapes to bug-eyed creatures with fashion plate footwear. The inkblots, created by Nissen on her studio floor, unfold; colored pencil, pens, acrylics, gouache and watercolors filling in and over the negative and positive spaces provided.   Some are almost indiscernible from the original black India ink, the asymmetrical regurgitations of Nissen’s mind imposed on the symmetrical. The drawings coincide with the Rorschach technique’s original intent: to reveal the patient/artist’s mind, provoking our imagination. “Many artists have appropriated the inkblot for most likely some of the same reasons I have — the seemingly random but mostly symmetrical shapes seem to mirror our own physical, almost symmetrical presence and act as catalysts for the mind to make connections [and] build stories, either consciously or not,” Nissen said. Nissen’s original colorless inkblots were created prior to 2001 and used on their own or as collage materials. Working with X-rays of human organs and bones for a series of oil paintings on animal brains, she began to find similarities in their symmetrical and graphic quality with inkblots. “I began drawing into them in about 2001 as an escape from a painting project that demanded my complete focus at a time when I could not clear my mind … I was too distracted,” Nissen said. “So instead, I just sat down with a stack of inkblots next to me and started making small interventions that eventually became more elaborate.” A keen fascination with how the body and mind operate remains apparent in her work, shifting between the physical and the psychological.   The crease running down each page generates the ink’s symmetrical pattern. It is the vertebrae of a penciled in women or the very industrial metal arms of a robot man in the artist’s mind. The drawings are all part of Nissen’s mindscape; an emerging collection of pictures and daily experiences, she said. For example, the very suburban ranch houses in bizarre or floating in vacant colored space represent Nissen’s conflict with an inconsistent living situation between the urban environment of New York City and country feel of Vermont, she said. For Nissen, the experience of creating these pieces was both gratifying and challenging.   “I was able to bring everything in my mind forward — all the disparate and colliding thoughts and obsessions — and channel them in spurts,” she said. “The inkblot itself is the consistent glue that holds the otherwise variable imagery of the series together.” Nissen’s “Rorschach Drawings” are on display at the BCA center until March 26. For more drawings from “All in Our Head” and future projects, check out Jessica Nissen’s website,