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 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:
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.”
“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.”
Detail of "Self-Portrait in Temporal Decay" by Nick Baxter from his exhibition at Sacred Tattoo (IG—burningxhope). #artshow #BloodRituals #fineare #gallery #NickBaxter #paintings #RitualMagic #SacredTattooNYC
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.”