Blood Work

One Man's Artistic Quest for Blood Equality

Photo: All images are taken from

A virtual tour through Jordan Eagles’ paintings takes you on a journey into viscera. In a career spanning over 20 years, this one-of-a-kind artist has mastered the preservation, application and potentiality of using human and animal blood in creating poignant and wondrous pieces of art. His pioneering work is political, transcendental and provocative. One would fathom that the use of blood as a medium would elicit feelings of revulsion and even dread, but to gaze at one of Eagles’ works feels like looking at the center of the universe. Superficially, they evoke a feeling of both familiarity and otherworldliness, bringing light to the statement that, at our core, we and the galaxy are made of the same substrata. Yet, at a deeper level, through his artistic brilliance, Eagles’ work shows how this idea runs afoul here on terra firma, where, in America, not all blood has equal footing.

Eagles landed on this fascination by happenstance. In a spiritual debate with a friend in 1998 about the existence of an afterlife, he saw an image of childbirth in a medical encyclopedia that was devoid of blood, a scenario he felt surely shouldn’t be as clinical. So, the artist in him went to work. He transferred the images onto acetate sheets and dripped red paint onto them, but the works felt flat and lacked energy. He found the vigor he was after in a container of pig’s blood he got from New York City’s Chinatown.

Over the years he has refined his technique, using what he describes as a bit of chemistry, biology and alchemy, “There’s a very specific preservation technique that I incorporate into the work, so that way the blood will maintain its integrity,” said Eagles. “It won’t change colors or shapes or patterns. It maintains the essence of blood.”

He covers the blood in multiple layers of UV resin and encases it in acrylic materials like Plexiglass, which keeps the blood in animated suspension—a nifty trick, given that blood hardens and decomposes fairly quickly. Not to mention resin is itself a volatile substance that behaves differently throughout its curing process. He also typically preserves the byproducts of his art as a bonus installation, such as blood bags, tubes and gloves to eliminate waste and to create transparency in his artistic process.

Eagles’ innovation has also allowed him to create installations made of shards of blood that resemble kryptonite which he discovered in a fit of rage, “I was really pissed off in the studio. I was not happy in a post-Trump world. I just started taking a hammer and destroying all the blood in the resin that falls to the studio floor; I was so angry. As I’m picking up the mess I’m realizing, this is actually rather beautiful. It’s like a shattered crystal or something. So, then I started thinking about how I could reassemble them and recreate new works out of it. And so, the shards were born.”

In addition to these multi-dimensional sculptures, he creates large-scale, immersive installations he calls “illuminations,” using light and overhead projectors to transform the physical environment into a canvas. He superimposes the images of panels of resinated blood globules that cast their unique pattern, taking the onlooker into some kind of bloodscape. Incorporating the shards, he explains that you can achieve a whole different effect: “Light itself is a big part of the work. Light can drastically affect the experience, not always for better or for worse, just different. There are the installations, which obviously are dependent on illuminating through the works. And then you shine a light on a shard, for example, and the light goes through it, casts a shadow onto the wall behind it, and then there’s this huge glowing drop shadow.”

Painting with blood is not new. Among the first works of art ever created in caves used blood as a material. For the Jewish tradition of Passover, the scripture says that God told Moses to instruct the Jews to use the blood of a lamb to mark their doors so that sickness would pass over their houses. In Eagles’ case, while the majority of his works are about the beauty and versatility of blood as artform, he has imbued new meaning in his choice of this medium for some of his exhibits, because of blood’s modern-day ethical and political significance:

“I’m a gay man and I work in blood. So there was a very natural ability to sort of engage with these issues and a familiarity with the materials in such a way that I felt that if I could execute certain projects in a particular method, we might be able to hopefully engage a broader conversation on these very important issues and create collaborations with individuals who are participating in the project as well as organizations to talk more and louder about the issues of the inequity in blood donation policy.”

Here, Eagles is speaking of his work as co-founder of Blood Equality, a partnership with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to put an end to discriminatory practices in blood donation. Up to 615,000 pints of blood are turned away each year in the United States that could save the lives of more than 1 million people because the donors are gay, bisexual or transgender men. This occurs even as there have been great technological advancements in detecting HIV at levels that escape standard blood tests. Through Eagles’ joint initiative and other advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, in 2015 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) modified its draconian lifetime-ban that went into effect after the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, to now allow gay, bi and trans donors to give their blood if they are celibate for 12 months. That rule was again revisited in April of this year and changed to three months of celibacy, because of blood shortages created by the coronavirus disease pandemic. The Red Cross reports a drop of 86,000 blood donations due to cancelations of some 2,700 blood drives.

The only celibacy requirement that exists for straight individuals are for women who have sex with bisexual men. The rules are so unfair that for LGBTQ donors that indicate in their applications the use of AIDS preventative medication like PrEP, it triggers a red flag for high risk exposure and may result in a consequent blockade, although there have been no reported incidents of this occurring in the blood supply. This blanket rule also affects trans men who use the prophylactic and who have sex with gay and bi men.

Perhaps Eagles most known exhibit is Blood Mirror, which first exhibited in 2015 at The American University Museum in Washington, D.C. He extracted blood from 59 gay, bisexual and transgender men under the supervision of medical professionals, which he encased in resin. Viewers can enter the closet-like sculpture and literally see themselves in the artwork.

“A lot of my work is very reflective and serves as mirrors,” said Eagles. “So, Blood Mirror becomes a literal mirror. At certain points viewers can see themselves through the blood of these 59 blood donors, and by doing so the viewer in a way becomes a participant in the piece. So, it’s asking them to see themselves through a material that has the essence of common humanity.”

What Eagles also hopes viewers see, but especially the US government, is the wasted potential of the blood he uses in his artwork and the wasted potential created by the discriminatory practice. This unjust policy has historically left a critical pool of blood untapped, all while blood is a scarce resource, especially in these Covid times, “There are a lot of ways to discuss this in terms of the injustice towards our community, but an even larger issue is also the massive blood shortages that are happening because of Covid-19 and blood donation centers being closed. So, it’s sort of an insult to injury that gays can’t do it at a moment like this, but even from a larger humanitarian standpoint, we’re having issues in our country.”

On June 14, 2019, on World Blood Donor Day (which happens to be President Trump’s birthday), Eagles premiered Our Blood Can Save Them at the Keith Haring Bathroom at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center and at every Housing Works in New York City. For this installation, Eagles repurposed images from a World War II propaganda poster to draw attention to the FDA ban but also to the policy the Trump administration put in place months earlier to prevent transgender individuals who experience gender dysphoria, take hormones or have undergone gender transition surgery from enlisting.

Eagles used blood from a trans, pansexual active U.S. Service Member and screen-printed it on the WWII poster. Limiting himself to only a pint of blood, he used every drop of it until the blood ran out, which created an effect where the image progressively fades away to mimic the erasure of individuals and communities by the discriminatory policies of both the FDA and military. Eagles explained his other inspiration for the piece, which was born from another government-sanctioned discriminatory policy from as far back as the 1940s:

“There was a Black surgeon here in New York named Dr. Charles R. Drew. He innovated techniques that enabled plasma to be stored and shipped. He’s often credited as the father of blood banking. However, because he was Black, he couldn’t donate blood because of racial segregation of blood at that time. So, it’s interesting to look at the history of blood donation and recognize that it’s been plagued with discrimination from its inception. So, in a project like that I’m raising awareness about the usage of blood as being discriminated against but I’m also interested in history and I’m interested in the ways in which we can take an object like a vintage poster that has its own history to it and then we can reinterpret that history by applying a queer donor on top of it.”

For Can You Save Superman, Eagles’ latest exhibit, available for virtual viewing in cooperation with the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art between June 10 – December 1, 2020, he’s again reused a vintage piece of pop art to make a point. In the original image, which is a cover of a Superman comic book from 1971, Superman is lifeless on a gurney with tubes in each arm, affixed to a cauldron to capture a massive amount of blood to revive the beloved superhero. There is a line of donors from the city of Metropolis, as far as the eye can see, awaiting their turn to give blood, many in a state of shock. One man in front is so bereaved that he’s depicted as having made the long journey on crutches. There is also a figure that looks like a medical professional welcoming them who says, “I warn you donors, as we begin the transfusion, your blood will save Superman or kill him.” In the foot of the image is the caption: ‘ATTACK OF THE MICRO-MURDERER.’

It turns out that Superman can’t receive their blood, because he isn’t human and so Superman can’t be saved. Eagles describes why this image, onto which he has splashed the blood of gay men on PrEP, struck him: “In 1971 when this comic book was created, a gay man could donate blood and be in that line to help Superman, but in 2020, despite the advancements in health science, medicine and testing, if you’re a member of the LGBT community you cannot help save Superman.”

And as is the case with any art, but especially Eagles’ there are many layers of subtext and messaging it evokes, as it relates to LGBTQ people, “It kind of reminded me of Pulse, Orlando. It reminded me of what happens very often after horrific acts of gun violence or these massacres that occurred in our country and how important blood donation is for communities to oftentimes come together and not only heal the victims but heal each other.”

“That act of coming together as a community is often so connected to blood donation. I don’t think that we as a society pay enough attention to the idea of generosity, of giving of oneself, and how personal and how meaningful that act is, because so often when you’re donating blood you don’t even know who’s receiving that blood. The recipient doesn’t typically know who the donor was. It’s totally this anonymous act of goodwill. It’s a real, true, selfless civilian act. So, when I saw this, it kind of just brought back that pain about Orlando and how tragic it was that gay people couldn’t even be there to help save their own brothers and sisters.”

In the context of the ongoing pandemic, the work that Eagles is exhibiting at the Leslie-Lohman Museum has an additional meaning. As the entire globe is beset with an elusive and wily bug in many ways similar and yet different from HIV, this attack of another “micro murderer” is not lost on Eagles, “When I first saw this comic book it reminded me of the AIDS crisis and the history about how in 1971 the AIDS crisis hadn’t hit. Looking at it now, I can understand that at the time the comic book existed AIDS was unheard of. So, it’s this weaving of how you look at something and how the meaning of what you’re looking at changes as the time changes. Here we are in 2020 and we see a type of micro murderer and how that means something different. Another layer is added because in the era of Covid-19, all of us are suddenly living through this fear of this invisible micro murderer.”

It’s unclear within this new context who Superman is. Is he representative of the population that is beleaguered with this terrible virus? Is he representative of Trump who is beyond being saved and who thinks of himself as a savior, despite his failures in managing the response to this disease? Or is Superman representative of the many heroes in the medical community, the “essential workers,” many of whom are members of the LGBTQ community, who have displayed tremendous bravery and sacrifice that almost seem superhuman? Regardless how you interpret it, the existing discriminatory policies still unfairly deny a swath of the population from invoking their inner hero to save their fallen comrade, Superman, a practice that Eagles hopes will be dismantled, “I think until we get to a point where there are the same questions and the same deferral policies for all individuals, it’s not going to be fair.”

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