January 9, 2015 – February 14, 2015
Every so often, weird stories surface in the news about people harboring a roofing nail, pair of scissors, toy dinosaur or other bizarre object in their dark interior. We read these accounts and recoil at the thought of something so alien making its home inside the human body. Yet millions of us are hosts to an array of medical devices made from metal, plastic and other synthetic materials, from pacemakers and stents to artificial joints and silicone gel implants.
Foreign Bodies, Vesna Jovanovic's exhibit of seven drawings at Packer Schopf Gallery, spotlights our new medical reality and its biological and ethical implications. Striking in size and execution, the works offer drawing purists plenty of virtuoso technique while prodding viewers to consider the degree to which rapid changes in our medical landscape are upending conventional conceptions of the human body.
Each work in the series measures 80" x 60" and features hyper-magnified views of the body's interior (brain, spine, inner ear, reproductive organs, hip and GI tract) expertly drawn using parallel and/or cross-hatched lines and circles of light graphite. The drawing technique references medical illustration but in a way that renders the subject matter fragile, almost ghostly. Yupo, the smooth and blindingly white polypropylene-based synthetic paper that Jovanovic uses as her base, reinforces the works' clinical associations to sterile labs, operating rooms and (especially) the sheets of paper placed over examination tables.
Alongside the muscle, connective tissue and organs of each body, Jovanovic has inserted a foreign object. Some are common and used in medical and elective procedures (screws, spinal cord stimulators, IUDs, breast implants), while others are true invaders: sewing buttons, batteries, a lone moth. All are presented in the same neutral manner, without regard to whether they are remedial or incongruous. At the same time she is pointing up the permeability of the human body, and its associated vulnerability, Jovanovic asks us to consider where we place the dividing line between what is "normal" and what is transgressive. The moth in the ear canal elicits repulsion, and screws that hold together damaged bone are clearly beneficial, but what about breast implants?
Spills of ink the artist has integrated into each drawing further amplify the body's vulnerable and unpredictable nature. The color of dried blood and contusions, they leak across the paper's surface like fluids from wounds or surgical incisions. The abrupt splash of color inserts a visceral, even queasy, element in the work. While medical illustration presents the body as comprehensible, even controllable, the spills that splay across the orderly lines of graphite remind us an illustration is a mere diagram, cleansed of sticky fluids, odorless and inert, like a body embalmed.
In some areas it appears we are viewing fluids or a cross-section of tissue through a microscope. This effect, a fortuitous byproduct of the way ink interacts with the paper's synthetic surface, enhances the drawings' visual impact by opening up another dimension in the work. Intentional or not, some of the shapes the spills create also suggest fish heads, amoebae, the antennae of slugs--a subtle nod to the evolutionary heritage we carry in our genomes.
It is, of course, evolution that remains the (endangered) elephant in the room. The transition from screws and spinal stimulators to bionic limbs, brain-computer interfaces and modified genomes is already under way. That which is considered strange one day becomes unremarkable and routine the next. How far should we go down that path? What defines our human-ness? Will we realize when we become a foreign body, distinct from our progenitors and separated with finality from the biosphere that once nurtured us?
(Published in Gapers Block, January 30, 2015)