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It's in the Mind of the Beholder: The Inkblot is Art. The Inkblot is Science.
Philadelphia Inquirer, cover


The Intimate Palestra is Truly a Public Place
Philadelphia Inquirer

The Inkblot is Art. The Inkblot is Science.

By Art Carey
Staff Writer

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 2008: cover

Eric Zillmer, a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University, has long been fascinated by inkblots and uses them in his clinical practice. An inkblot scholar, he has collected over a thousand examples, including 230 inkblots administered to Nazi war criminals.

Among them is an inkblot pondered by the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who imagined "a leaf chewed up by insects, pressed for drying, in a herbarium."

"It shows he was no poster boy for the banality of evil," Zillmer says. "He was much more complicated and sophisticated."

Now Zillmer's inkblots, collected in the name of science, have joined another professor's inkblots, created for the sake of art, in an unusual exhibit, "Open to Interpretation: The Art and Science of the Inkblot."

Although art and science are both modes of inquiry and discovery, they are viewed commonly as separate and discrete. The inkblot bridges the two, says the exhibit's curator, Ephraim Russell, showing that there's science and truth in art, and art and beauty in science.

"The exhibit itself is a form of inkblot," Zillmer says. "It's a celebration of ambiguity."

The seed of the exhibit was planted nearly two years ago when Zillmer attended a lecture by John Langdon, a colleague who entertained the audience with some of his inkblot art. Zillmer promptly sent Langdon, a professor of graphic design, an e-mail message: "If you show me your inkblots, I'll show you mine."

How could Langdon resist?

In time, Zillmer, the scientist, inkblot collector and "cognitive guy," and Langdon, the artist, inkblot explorer and "emotional guy," became friends and collaborators.

The fruit of their partnership is now on display at Drexel's Leonard Pearlstein Gallery until Feb. 8. Of the exhibit's 70 inkblots, half are what Zillmer calls "clinical inkblots," actually used to assess personality. The other half are Langdon's "artistic inkblots," mostly spontaneous creations that reveal his fondness for symmetry and subversive playfulness.

When most people think of inkblots, they think of the Rorschach test. Within the world of inkblots, Rorschach is the name brand. It is to inkblots what Xerox is to copy machines and Kleenex is to facial tissue. But there are different types and makers of inkblots, and the art of the inkblot precedes Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychiatrist who used them to study the perceptual processes of schizophrenics. Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Victor Hugo experimented with inkblots, and inkblots figure prominently in the work of more recent artists such as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

"Inkblots fascinate because they unlock the imagination and the unconscious realms of the mind," Langdon says.

"They are romantic and archetypal," Zillmer adds. "They are part of popular culture. Everybody knows what they are, and most people can relate to them."

Along one wall of the exhibit are samples from Zillmer's collection, clinical inkblots used to probe the psyches of 10 people - some well known - and their telling responses.

In a dismal-looking inkblot, a 16-year-old spree killer somehow sees "a smiley face, got badly shot, four holes."

The inkblot viewed by Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's assassin, evoked this interpretation: "A blood smear on a microscope thing. Looks like blood smeared around."

Nobel laureate Linus Pauling looked at a bat-like inkblot and saw "Icarus, like da Vinci's drawing, wearing skis." ("An intellectualized response," Zillmer says.)

In the 1950s, inkblots were synonymous with psychology. Since then they have fallen out of fashion, but are still a valid psychometric tool, says Zillmer, 51, who is also Drexel's athletic director. He hastens to add: "The inkblot is not an X-ray of the mind or the soul, but a representation of the psychology of the person."

The clinical inkblots tend to be monochromatic and restrained. Langdon's inkblots are colorful and exuberant. Little wonder. Many were created during the equivalent of artistic recess. After a day of painting, he would scrape what was left on his palette and, using a mixing stick, "slam it" on a page torn from a wallpaper sample book. Then he would fold it, press it, unfold it - and marvel at the result.

"In most of my work, I'm control-oriented and I obsess over every detail," says Langdon, 61, a master of the art of ambigrams, words that can be read in more than one way. "So being able to take paint and throw it on paper is fun." For Langdon, part of the appeal is "the aspect of randomness." The creation of the inkblot is accidental, serendipitous, unintentional.

Then again, maybe not. "The psyche operates in mysterious ways," Zillmer interjects.

"Don't listen to him," Langdon warns, jokingly.

"Sigmund Freud," Zillmer resumes, "says we try to inject meaning in whatever we do, even if unconsciously."

The inkblot derives its power from symmetry. "Symmetry," Langdon declares, "brings order out of chaos." Symmetry is intrinsically attractive, the basis of beauty. "When something is symmetrical and ambiguous, it creates a certain tension," Zillmer says. In imparting meaning to his inkblots, Langdon uses visual cues - usually a superimposed human mouth clipped from a magazine. The addition of a mouth transforms most of the inkblots into human faces or figures.

"The human face is the most important and recognizable image," Langdon says. "It commands attention and is the focus of interest." Like an inkblot, the face delights through symmetry and intrigues through ambiguity, the ever-changing play of personality and emotion, all of which is open to interpretation.

One of the larger pieces is Langdon's homage to the artist who inspired his serious interest in inkblot art: Andy Warhol. Langdon's love of letters is irrepressible. Look closely and you'll notice that the white spaces between the seemingly chaotic blobs of black paint spell the pop artist's name.

"It's about what's between the lines," Langdon says. "There's more than one way to interpret anything and everything. Things are as they appear to be, and they are otherwise."