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It's difficult to describe Ultimate Rebirth. It's a large piece of art: Five feet wide, six feet tall, three inches thick, and over 225 pounds. Light reflects off its smooth, hard surface, but it also penetrates the work's interior, bouncing through resin and pigment before spilling out again. Energetic linesscarlet, vermilion, umber, crimson, maroon, henna, cinnamon, puce, cerise, carnelian, copper, brick, ocher, ecru, mahogany, russet, bronze, and deep reddish blackemanate from either side of a vibrant beryl-blue slash. From afar, Ultimate Rebirth looks like a horizon disgorging the stuff of stars. Up close, each ray of color is its own landscape bearing witness to time, gravity, and the creative force of 28-year-old artist Jordan Eagles. One fragment has the texture and appearance of feathers; others look like a trickle of molten lava, crushed velvet, marcasite, seashells, fingerprints, dried rose petals, cracked earth, napalm, butterfly wings, oxidized metal, animal fur, and the curling bark of scorched trees. Hardly any of it looks like what it is: blood.
Half a gallon of blood poured, painted, and persuaded to move over a dozen layers of resin over the course of two weeks. Some of the blood was mixed with glass pigment or metallic powder to create the shimmering phosphorescent blue and copper tones, but most of the delicate effects in Eagles's work are intrinsic to the material he uses. Blood has a life of its own.
"It's an organic material," he says as we drive from his Lower East Side apartment to the manicured climes of Short Hills, New Jersey, "so it moves and changes according to its environment. It also spoils. I use fresh blood."
We pull into the deep wooded driveway of the local slaughterhouse. Except for a glimpse of hanging carcasses seen through a slightly ajar back door, the retail counter of the Green Valley Packing Company looks like any butcher shop. Local business cards hang among a montage of before-and-after photographs: loyal customers holding farm animals and freshly caught fish; happy families gathered in front of yards of sausage.
"It's me again," says Eagles with a schoolboy's charm. "When was the kill?" The butcher assures him that it was no later than yesterday and slides a cold, sweating gallon jug across the counter.
"Chicken blood would look the same," says Eagles as we pull into his parents' driveway, "but I only work with expired mammal. We have more of a connection with mammals."
The two-car garage, which Eagles uses as a studio, is lined with sheets of clear plastic; several long tables hold half a dozen Plexiglas "canvases" at varying stages of readiness. Eagles slides the jug into the refrigerator and takes a small Tupperware container of frozen cow's blood out to thaw on the scorching asphalt. Then he gingerly dips his finger in the darkest corner of a new piece, testing for tackiness, and uses a wooden skewer to pull a small gnat out of the purplish pool.
"This is perfect weather," he explains. "In the winter, the blood takes too long to dry. It becomes dark and thick like tar. I can only work until about Thanksgiving."
During the winter, Eagles creates pop artdrawings of dead politicians and celebrities enshrined in psychedelic mandalas, much of which will be shown at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts this fall. But during the warmer months, you can find him here, laboring until the small hours of the morning to make sure no stray hair corrupts the work.
"I never intended to be an artist," Eagles says with an easy smile. "In high school, I produced large trade shows. I got accepted to the top entrepreneurial- studies programs in the country."
But in college something shifted.
"I started asking myself those questions: If I cut off my arm, am I still me? Is the arm still me? Where am I in here? Am I my body or my mind or something else?"
Around this time, Eagles found a series of photos depicting childbirth in a medical encyclopedia. Struck by the sterility of the images, he set about bringing life to the scene by creating paintings around acetate transfers of the photographs. At first, he used red paint, but soon he found himself in Chinatown buying the real thing.
As seemingly ghoulish as the impulse appears on paper, in person, Eagles and his work are anything but macabre. "Using death to express life holds a lot of interest for me," he explains. "This was once a cow, now it's a cow in Tupperware, now it's a cow on Plexiglas. There's something transformative and regenerative about it. Something transcendent. I think we are much more than our physical form."
Eagles changes into a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and begins applying blood-soaked cheesecloth to a piece of Plexi. His parents, dressed in breezy weekend attire, step over small puddles of blood on their way to their car.
"There's fruit salad upstairs," his mother says, with a big smile.
"Thanks," Eagles replies, removing a napkinone of the many he wets like a paintbrush while laying blood to Plexiglasfrom his mouth. "Those are two of the nicest, most wonderful people in the world," he adds as he carries a piece of wet art to the back deck where it will bake and crack in the sun. "If you want the original color, you have to keep it out of the sun and preserve it quickly. Older blood turns brown and muddy, creating more organic earth tones." We watch as a dark crater emerges in a crimson orb. "The material is the hero here," Eagles says. "I try to take myself out of it completely."
Eagles pulls a sketch from his pocket. Using a paintbrush and a stack of saliva-dampened paper towels, he places broad strokes of blood across the resinated surface of a huge piece of Plexiglas. This will be the first of 20 layers of blood and resin, with a drying time of hours or days between each layer. He pours blood out onto another sheet of Plexi and coerces it by slanting the plane. The resulta virulent splash across a stark white background is thrilling enough to cause Eagles to squeal and bite his wrist.
"I could use a cigarette after that," he says. But Eagles doesn't smoke; instead, he works on this one shape for another hour, slowly adding beads of blood to pools already threatening to break through their surface tension. It is punctilious work but Eagles is on fire.
To cool down, he takes me to his childhood room. Once a gallery for baseball cards, this room is now a way station for the season's latest blood work. I sit on the floor while Eagles hangs a painting on the wall and clips in a few pin lights. Brilliant beams of copper, bronze, pink, and gold explode from a small hole in the center of the Plexiglas canvas.
"Now watch," Eagles says as he dims the lights until they are nearly extinguished. The piece continues to glow, as if fueled by its own energy source, as if the blood were alive.
"See, here, light is the hero."