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Jordan Eagles with visitors to BLOOD/SPIRIT. All photographs by Jeffrey Vaughn, courtesy of MOCRA
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If you haven't seen it yet, Jordan Eagles’ BLOOD/SPIRIT, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, is worth skipping a lunch hour for. The show opened this January, and has extended its run through mid-summer. Eagles has shown at a wide array of institutions, including the Peabody Essex Museum; the Trinity Museum at Trinity Church, Wall Street; and the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. He's also been written up in the New York Times, Huffington Post, the Village Voice, ARTINFO, and WIRED. Though he works with a number of different materials—resin, gauze, copper—he’s best known for using animal blood, which he’s done for the last 15 years.
Unlike artists like Damien Hirst or Sruli Recht who use biological materials in way that's meant to shock, Eagles’ work is more contemplative than confrontational. It is abstract, kind of Minimalist, and aesthetically pleasing—though the awareness that one is looking at a beautiful image created with blood is, at times, more powerful and unsettling than halved sharks floating in tanks of formaldehyde.
"There’s been a lot of use of blood in contemporary art," Eagles says. "But I find that most of the works tend to be about the body specifically, performance, there’s a sort of masochistic or sacrificial kind of approach. I didn’t even know I was going to become an artist! And my work is definitely not designed to shock an audience...I just find that for what I’m trying to do, people have so many assocations with a material like blood, right off the bat. I want to present the materials in a way that it’s approachable, that a viewer doesn’t feel it’s sterile because of the preservation techniques, and that it doesn’t sway one way or the other. People come see my work, and some come look at it and go ‘Wow.’ And some people say, I’m uncomfortable. But then I can’t feel like they are uncomfortable because of me, it’s their own association."
The image above is the enormous BAR 1-9, a series of nine panels, each 8 feet high and weighing about 250 pounds each. The installation in its entirety is 32 feet long; it's installed in MOCRA's Nave Gallery. "BAR stands for blood-acrylic-resin, which is what the piece is made of; but the idea is also that bars are notes, so there’s a sequencing that’s happening, a movement," Eagles says. "Each bar is unique unto itself, and yet it’s designed to be one, cohesive piece." He has multiple associations with it. "The piece always reminds me of doors, like passages to other dimensions, almost like you could walk through the door into another force field," he says. "They also feel to me like tombs, like upright tombs... sorf ot like outer space alien tombs, or something Egyptian. Ultimately, it always reminds me that you have now this moment is what counts."
Made in the fall of 2009, Eagles produced the ambitous series after a friend died. He had an exhibit coming up, and had planned to do projections. He made BAR 1-9 instead. "I’d always wanted to make something in monumental scale," he says. "It was one of those moments where you realize that life is so fragile, and now is the time. It was a wake-up call for me; I realized that if I wanted to make this piece, this was the time to do it. So I made it... It was a marathon piece. We did not stop. It was two assistants and me—they rotated. I would catch an hour of sleep when I could, but it was about 20 hour days for 15 straight days."
Just like BAR 1-9 (detail above), each piece is carefully named with numbers and acronyms which refer to the series it belongs to, and the materials and techniques used. (Check out this video to get a sense of how varied Eagles' techniques can be.) The titling is not just descriptive and archival, but multi-leveled and poetic. For instance, ROZE HF2 (2012), which is made with blood, copper and gauze preserved on Plexiglas and encased in UV resin, reads on several levels. "There are the literal rows existing in the piece, the rows of the gauze, but also the idea that it rose from the dead," he explains. "So it plays with the idea of regeneration, but Rose can also be a name, so it has the sense of something that’s passing, and then also the color, rose, which relates to the blood. Then also the flower, rose, which is a tribute flower." (The "HF," by the by, refers to "Hemofield," another series that references Color Field painters, though there was little to no painting done on those pieces.)
The other works in the show are installed in the small chapel galleries (above: a visitor contemplating BDLF and Untitled) and show a range of techniques, including the layering of aged blood to create "blood dust," and blood "rocks." One of those rocks is visible in the scuulpture above at the right--it's preserved in a copper-blood mixture. (Dropped on the floor unpreserved, it would shatter.) Eagles keeps a freezer filled with dated containers of blood, which he sources from slaughterhouses. "I recycle it into other pigments," he says. "It takes years to develop the blood dust, so cultivating that takes a while. It’s almost like alchemy. You are playing with different substances and playing with different approaches."
He first used blood in art school, after having an argument with a rationalist friend about the possibility about life after death. This sparked a series of paintings based on sterile illustrations of childbirth from a medical textbook. Eagles attempted to bring some viscerality to these images by dripping and splattering red paint on them, but he said they still felt "flat." So he took a trip down to Chinatown, and sourced some bovine blood from a butcher.
"This was all done in my college dorm room," he says with a bit of amusement. "I started dripping the blood, and it was instantaneous. Doctors may have a similar experience, but there’s a magical sense that comes from the material. We have to give respect to the power it has. From the first drip, I was hooked; I was like 'Wow.' It was just very alive. Including the way it dries, and crackles. So over the course of that first year, the pieces changed from red to brown. But I really liked the way they looked when they were red. So I started to try and figure out, how could I preserve this? And I started experimenting with different materials and resins, spray glues and different kinds of things."
While many of those materials are used to preserve the blood at different stages (fresh blood gives the most vivid red color) copper both preserves and and creates its own field of resonance. "Copper is a conductor of electricity. So the idea is that you are using a material that is designed to transfer energy, so you are bringing additional energy to the work," he explains. "It also creates a beautiful color, aside from the symbolism, there is the aesthetics. I love bringing things that have energy to the pieces. Blood has so many connotations. I can touch on so many things about the blood, but the overarching philosophy is of regeneration, presenting beauty, and presenting the life cycle, especially when we are dealing with an exhibition that is in the context of the spiritual."
Lately, Eagles has been making more minimal pieces that are shiny and almost black "like the surface of a piano," so people can see themselves reflected in the surface. In this show, there are also examples of his "Energy" series (above: TSJF) which are more complex, and have great movement to them. "It always has a center point, and it’s always exploding outwards or going in," Eagles says. "It deals with the idea, or that emotional feeling of inside my chest, a sense there is this soul, this spirit, and it goes pow! And pushes its energy out. But it’s also designed to represented a supernova exploding in outer space. Or looking into the head of a volcano, and going interior to the earth. And then these are built on translucent Plexiglas. So the first three works you saw were opaque. The idea of what happens here is the light actually goes through the work, projecting onto he wall behind the piece. and then vibrating back out, really highlighting the dimensionality and the suspension of the blood."
Eagles says he doesn't consider himself a religious person, but definitely a spiritual one, and though sometimes his exhibits are more scientific, or more grounded in art history, his work is inherently soulful.
"I believe that all of us are connected to one another," he says. I think we are all connected to a larger energy field. Some may call that God. Some may call it Allah, some may call it Jesus, some may call it who knows what, just energy. But I believe there is a larger process happening, and it’s ever-changing and evolving and we are all a part of it." He says initially his work was sparked by very human questions ("What happens if a veteran comes back from the war, and they are missing their legs, so there is physically less mass? Or someone who is obese and goes on one of these great diets, and all of a sudden loses 100 pounds? They are physically taking up less space in the universe. Is there less soul in them? What is that thing that is defining our personalities, and defining our sense of place and our sense of self? Is it genetics? Is it an electrical charge that is acting with our biology? I started asking myself these kinds of questions. Who am I, and what does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be me in conjunction with you?") but now it often happens almost inutiively. "It’s almost like alchemy--certain magical things occur," he says. "You have to be almost like an editor, and look at something and say, that is innately beautiful, I’m going to preserve that, and present that, and let the viewer have that experience.
"Some works are more painterly. Others, I try to make look as if it happened by accident, and maybe wasn’t even created by a person. That it may be a scientific specimen, like a piece of amber that’s been cut. Something that takes you to connect to the material, as opposed to connecting to the artist."
One thing is for sure, it is difficult to truly grasp the power of Eagles' work without seeing it in person. "Most people see the works online, and it’s hard to translate the energy of the pieces through photos," he says. "I feel like blood has a powerful sense to it that it’s not possible to truly capture what the pieces are about in a photograph. People will look at a photo and say, 'Oh, it looks big,' or 'It looks interesting,' but when they see them up close, and in person, it’s very different."
So go, and give yourself some time for soul-searching. Or just aesthetic contemplation. You could spend way more than a lunch hour here, gazing through glassy layers of resin at swirls of blood and copper; admiring the icicle-like drips on the side of the canvases that reveal the painstaiking process of pouring each layer and leaving it to cure; or standing in front of BAR 1-9, picking out all of the complex textures, and imaginging just which dimensions these doors lead to.
BLOOD/SPIRIT runs through June 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 West Pine, on the campus of Saint Louis University. Admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation. The museum's summer hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 4pm. For more information, call 314-977-7170 or visit mocra.slu.edu.