The moment news of this exhibit landed in my inbox, I had to know more. Two world-class artists, both talented tattooers and painters, joining forces for one epic installation was reason enough to get excited. Add to that the fact that Nick Baxter’s Blood Rituals MMXVI and Jon Clue’s Ritual Magic marked Baxter’s return to New York after a four-year hiatus and a venture for Clue from Sacred Tattoo to Sacred Gallery and there was no keeping me away.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the human body, the medical sciences and all that’s hidden within us that makes us what we are,” says Nick Baxter, trying to encapsulate the inspiration behind the 11 paintings making up Blood Rituals MMXVI.

“Blood is such a powerful and universal symbol of life and, ironically, death. It’s also just fun to paint because it’s a living liquid that does so many things,” he continues. “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 many great artistic possibilities.” Baxter, who has undergone his fair share of bloodletting procedures to treat hemochromatosis, a disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron, is no stranger to seeing blood first-hand. “Over the years, I’ve compiled quite a nice collection of reference material from these sessions,” he reveals. “This set the creative gears in motion and eventually, the idea of the Blood Rituals series was sparked.”

After speaking with Jon Clue “about the general themes and artistic styles we wanted to work with to make sure our e‹orts would have some sort of synergy when paired in a gallery setting,” it was o‹ to the races. Choosing to return to the trompe l’oeil (French for ‘deceive the eye’) style of still life painting he first mastered in college, Baxter set out to achieve one major goal: “use blood imagery and symbolism in a way that doesn’t evoke the shock value of gore or the campiness of the horror genre.

“I’m not trying to comment on a specific medical condition or treatment, either,” he adds. “So I wanted to surround it with unlikely juxtapositions and temper its visual power with an understated classical sensibility.” “I relied heavily on photography in order to capture the fleeting e‹ects of condensation, coagulation, separation of white and red cells and other subtle details that enhance the authentic sense of realism in the final painted image,” says Baxter, a true master of hyperrealism. “Stage blood simply doesn’t undergo these biological changes.”

“Completing the paintings one at a time over the span of nearly a year, the full viewing experience was very much delayed, even for me, the artist, but my excitement grew as each piece was finished and when I finally had them all framed, I was very satisfied,” he admits. “When I see them together, I feel a quiet, somber darkness and the existential sadness of loss, which is something they all 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, they all have lost. But all still remain.” “My use of blood-related subject matter has several layers of symbolism, from personal struggle and loss to the brutality inherent in modern civilisation,” he elaborates. “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.”

Changing gears to dig a little deeper in Baxter’s tattoo career, which began with an apprenticeship in 1999, we soon land on the topic of evolution and the “massive surge in media attention and popularity” surrounding tattooing.

“I’ve seen the shifts from word of mouth to business cards, to websites, to magazines, to TV, to social media,” he starts. “I’ve also experienced the evolution of conventions from a bunch of tattooers meeting in a large hall a handful of times a year to entertainment and learning extravaganzas seemingly happening every weekend of the year. Basically, there’s just a lot more of everything and everyone. It’s an exciting and sometimes overwhelming time to be involved in tattooing.”

That said, Baxter tries to “accept the tattoo world as it is since it’s made up of so many di‹erent people with unique gifts to share. In my better moments, I’m able to find the wonder in things as they are and appreciate the amazing opportunities I’m given. More than ever before, the level of style innovation and artistic expression in tattooing is staggering and the tattoo world has a frenetic, free-flowing, communal artistic energy that seems lacking in the fine art world.” “When I got into it in the late ‘90s, I was a teenager fascinated by the craft and allured by the glamorous rebelliousness of the lifestyle. Not to mention the prospect of actually making good, reliable money in an artistic occupation,” he recalls. “Now, I don’t see it as very rebellious at all. I enjoy the artistic selfexpression and the autonomy it gives me to live a passionate, exciting life of continually striving to improve myself and share what I know with others.”

“I’m just trying to remain active, period,” says the artist when asked what’s kept him painting and tattooing for the past 18 years. “Stagnation and idleness is deadly to me. In tattooing, I get to interface with another person and work with a more collaborative and open-ended process. In painting, I get to go deep into my own mind to tap into powerful psychological constructs and archetypes with a very specific, predetermined process. One of them is always feeding into the other and I probably wouldn’t be as good in either medium if not for the other.”

These days, you’ll find Baxter working in a private studio in Austin, Texas, which he describes as being “a strange city for tattooing. It’s a notorious party and music festival town with a lot of transient young people and a very entrenched traditional tattooing scene and mentality. There’s an artistic, crafty DIY vibe here and that makes it fun to be an artist.” His “all-time favourite Austin attraction”, the Cathedral of Junk, certainly reflects that. “An Internet search should turn up the fun story behind this post-apocalyptic experimental playground,” he says. “Sadly, it’s been under siege by city oœcials in recent years as Austin becomes more crowded and old, quirky neighbourhoods become gentrified. It might soon be a disappearing treasure, so everyone should experience it while they can!” So, who is Nick Baxter? Just “the universe experiencing itself.”

Introducing Jon Clue
Stepping in to exhibit alongside Nick Baxter with his own set of new works, Brooklyn native Jon Clue arrived at Ritual Magic, which he describes as “a culmination of my art to date.” “This series is the ‘last’ of the stripped down black and white paintings I’ve been doing for the last five years,” he explains. “The visuals are the magic that comes from the rituals in making every attempt to fully realise a vision that I’ve been chasing since I can remember remembering.” “The initial inspiration is a diœcult thing to really pinpoint, as it’s all just a collection of the imagery that plays like a movie on a screen attached to the back of my eyelids. Every attempt I ever make at recreating this imagery is always a gross approximation of the original vision and each piece is a step closer to getting there.”

“Some of the images are from photos that I’ve taken and some completely from my imagination-I did not want to limit myself at all by confining myself within any sort of set boundaries,” he says. “The more photographic ones are still captures from my imagination, but fully realised with tangible items. This is another critical volley in my creative process: finding ways to learn from life and apply it to my imagination and vice versa to make images from life seem a bit more imaginative.” Unlike Baxter, Clue didn’t see his entire series of works together in one place until opening night because they were painted in separate studios. “Although I see them all completed in my head, any time I show my paintings, the first view I get when walking into the gallery and seeing them in a di‹erent environment than I created them in is the closest I get to seeing them from the perspective of an outsider,” he reveals. “I really look forward to that.”

At this point, I can’t help but ask Clue how a kid from Brooklyn ended up working as a tattoo artist in Long Island in the first place, especially at a time when tattooing was still illegal. Rewinding to 1993, he recalls: “I always had an attraction to imagery of the underground and as a young artist, tattooing seemed like a way to make the type of art I was interested in. The idea of it being a viable source of income was not even a thought, let alone the idea of attaining any sort of credibility from it. I just wanted to make pictures on people and do the best job that I possibly could.”

“There were only five shops on Long Island and a lot of people wanting to be tattooed. I think it was around that time that tattooing really did begin its climb into the mainstream of pop culture. I can’t remember how many Red Hot Chili Peppers-inspired tattoos I did that first year!” he laughs.

Since then, Clue has experienced numerous changes in the tattoo world, all of which he dubs “inevitable”, but does point out one particular shift-“People who thought I was a loser for being tattooed and tattooing in the early ‘90s now want to join the club”-before adding that “even that aspect of it completely has its place in the dynamics of what has become of the tattoo industry. Everyone wants in on the magic and, to be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing. Each piece of it has its place in the bigger picture. This is simply the dynamics of every situation and fighting it would be a futile e‹ort.”

Just like the industry around him, Clue strives to continuously grow and evolve. “After 23 years of tattooing without any sort of substantial break, I find it’s important to always remember the things that originally made me excited about tattooing and I believe that constantly finding ways to reinvent myself as an artist is a crucial aspect to continually make each project as exciting as the one before it or after it,” he says. This includes switching back and forth between mediums and showing equal love for tattooing and painting. “For me, one wouldn’t exist as it does without the other. I began tattooing when I was 19 and had absolutely no formal training,” he says. “Once I figured out how the tattoo tools worked, I needed to figure out how to make my art better. Once I got to a certain point where I was happier with how the art was going, I’d focus more on how to introduce that back into my tattooing. This very aspect of the process is one of the biggest driving forces behind my art career; each medium excites me to introduce it to the other. When I’m finished with a painting, all I can think about is hoping to tattoo stu‹ like it and vice versa.”

Then there’s music. “Sound has always been an influence on the art that I create and it was inevitable that I’d have the need to explore that interest,” says Clue. “I taught myself how to play bass and played with a black metal band called Damnatum. At about the two-year mark, I was beginning to feel con- flicted with how much time it took away from making art and tattooing.”

“Shortly after that band broke up, I began playing in a similar but more thought-out project and with that, I knew I had to step my playing skills up a bit. Realising how much more time I’d have to separate from making my art, I decided that, at least for now, I’m putting music on hold and diving into my art further.” “Every day I wake up on this side of the grass is in some way credited to tattooing,” he concludes. “I was a broke 19-year-old metalhead graœti kid from Brooklyn with no idea that I’d end up traveling around the world, making pictures on people. I remember that every day.”

So, who is Jon Clue? “Just another storm of chaos experiencing life.”