Tattooist and visual artist Nick Baxter currently has a series of oil paintings that run red with depictions of his own blood on exhibit at Sacred Tattoo’s gallery in New York City. He’s filled these masterpieces with medical oddities and other peculiar objects — such as straight razors, skulls, eggshells, and more — to create an intensely profound viewing experience.
“I love form — the way light illuminates the world we perceive — and I love seeing the illusion of a reality that’s so convincing it can transport your mind into the world of the painting,” Baxter, the skilled visual artist behind the beautiful and tragic still lifes currently hanging in Sacred Tattoo’s wonderful gallery, told us. In these captivating and somewhat grotesque pieces of art, one can see both his skill as a painter and the conceptual genius behind his work.
Baxter dabbles in several forms of media and considers them as informing one another. “For pure, unfiltered expression with deep symbolism, I prefer painting, but for more illustrative or graphic work, and especially for the collaborative creative process between client and artist, tattoos are a perfect outlet for other aspects of my creativity,” Baxter said. “Each medium feeds off of and informs the other, in a cycle of experimentation and learning that results in a more well-rounded skill set.” As far as artistic expertise goes, he could scarcely be more versatile. When examining his work on canvas alongside his work on skin, it becomes apparent how it all bleeds together.
Of all of the mediums that he professes, he is particularly drawn to the evocative power of realistic paintings. “There’s a subtler aspect of realism that I enjoy, which occurs with the most convincing pictorial illusions: that brief moment of disorienting wonder, a tiny temporary crack in the veneer of mundane certainty when the viewer who thought they were looking at a photograph realizes that’s not at all what it is,” Baxter explained. “I’ve heard that moment described as the point where ‘emotional certainties waver, and taste loses its bearings.’ I like trying to access that vulnerable place with what I do, I think an artwork can be impactful there.”
Baxter chose to use his blood as a reference point for the still lifes because of its symbolic universality. In his artist statement for Blood Rituals MMXVI, he writes the following about his paintings:
"Blood is the liquid life force that feeds our physical vessel, the container of our soul. Its hidden presence sustains us; the breach beyond its borders horrifies us. It plays an ever-present and meaningful role in the human lexicon, as a symbol of love and sacrifice, of familial bond and battle alike; its deep scarlet hue is representative of passion and our most powerful, primal urges."
Though this passage is designed to serve as a way to guide viewers’ interpretations, it also speaks volumes about the amount of meaning that pours forth from his bloody subject matter. For Baxter, the florid liquid that flows through our veins is more than just a vehicle for transporting hemoglobin and a means for clotting our wounds; in his mind’s eye, it signifies the fundamental properties of the human spirit.
Due to a medical disorder, Baxter has spent an extensive amount of time considering what blood represents to him. “I’ve had my share of exposure to it through routine bloodletting procedures I must undergo for a condition of iron overloading in my blood called Hemochromatosis. Over the years I’ve compiled quite a nice collection of reference material from these sessions, which of course set the creative gears in motion over what to make with it, and eventually the idea of the Blood Rituals series was sparked.” Because of the frequency with which he has had his blood drawn, Baxter has developed a close friendship with his phlebotomist. Her arm is even in the exhibit’s centerpiece, and it’s the only living human figure to make an appearance in the paintings.
Though the way he captures the vividness of blood can make even the thickest-skinned viewer feel squeamish (if not downright queasy), the viscous substance serves a more profound purpose in his paintings. “One of my primary goals, or hopes, with this series was to use blood imagery and symbolism in a way that doesn’t evoke the shock value of gore or the campiness of the horror genre, so I wanted to surround it with unlikely juxtapositions and temper its visual power with an understated classical sensibility.”
As morbid as it may sound, Baxter claims to have enjoyed using his blood to create this pulse-quickening exhibition. “I had a lot of fun with it. Blood is just fun to paint, because it’s a living liquid that does so many things. Of course, it’s visceral and shiny and incredibly vibrant in color, but it also separates, clots, coagulates, dries and cracks, forms bubbles, changes color. It presents so many great artistic possibilities, to say nothing of its powerful symbolic potential.” Baxter’s intimate knowledge of this “living liquid” is evident in the way he describes it. It’s almost as if he’s talking about paint and not something sapped from his own body.
“My use of blood-related subject matter has several layers of symbolism, from personal struggle and loss to the brutality inherent in all human civilizations, ancient and modern,” Baxter said. “I hope these images cut through any immediate reactions of fright or repulsion to access the vulnerable state of emotional freshness or tenderness that lies at the core of all our psyches.” Because blood has such emotional significance to him, it has enabled him to authentically transfuse powerful and universal themes of sacrifice and loss into the paintings.
Though he revels in the many interpretations that viewers project onto his paintings, he also intended there to be more coagulated meanings embodied by the pieces, too. “I created this series with a very specific artistic vision and a premeditated intention, and with that comes the desire for people to engage with the images from a certain mindset,” Baxter elaborated. “There are layers of symbolism and art-historical references that some viewers probably wouldn’t know how to decode without some prompting, so I included the artist statement for those curious to know where I’m coming from.”
Though he acknowledges that the exact intended interpretations of his paintings will likely remain elusive to most people, he believes that the overall emotional atmospheres of these pieces will impact viewers.
"When a viewer sees the gallery show, I’d feel like the works achieved their aim if that viewer felt a quiet somber darkness, and the existential sadness of loss, which is something all the paintings depict in one form or another. The blood is lost from the body, the weathered shelves and rusted metal have lost their former shine, the skulls and various bones, the wilted flowers, the tattered books — all have lost. But all still remain. I imagine viewers perhaps also piecing together a loose semblance of a story being told by the remnants of some mysterious recent event — the artifacts left behind in the form of a still life arrangement. But I don’t need them necessarily to feel what I feel, or anything in particular, I just hope that they feel something."
Any observer of Baxter’s artwork would be hard pressed to miss out on the solemn feeling of loss in each of the still lifes. They all ooze tragedy and exert a rather cathartic as well as visceral force. Examining these paintings truly takes something out of you. “They are all quite intimate to me, carrying personal narratives inspired by certain events and struggles in my life, featuring various objects I’ve collected over the years,” said Baxter. “And needless to say, the blood I used for reference is me, in a very literal and existential way.”
Follow Baxter on Instagram and check out his website. Also, check video of him getting his blood drawn. Consider making it over to Sacred’s gallery, too, so that you can see some of his still lifes. The show ends this month, so go before it’s too late. The paintings are even more exhilarating in the flesh.