After completing the review of my recent gallery show that I mentioned in my last blog post, staff writer at tattoodo.com Ross Howerton sent me some more in depth questions to learn more about the origins of the series. This interview made it into another stellar review of the exhibit on tattoodo.com, which you can read at the following link:
“These insanely realistic still lifes at Sacred Tattoo tap into mankind’s deepest veins.”
For even more in-depth commentary that didn’t make it into the article, here is the complete interview:
RH: How does working in different mediums, like tattooing and painting, affect you artistically?
NB: Each medium feeds off of and informs the other, in a cycle of experimentation and learning that results in a more well-rounded skillset.
RH: What is your favorite medium to work in?
NB: For pure, unfiltered expression with deep symbolism I prefer painting, but for more illustrative or graphic work, and especially for the collaborative creative process between client and artist, tattoos are a perfect outlet for other aspects of my creativity.
RH: As far as painting goes, you seem to have a preference for working in realism; why is that?
NB: 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.
There’s a subtler aspect of realism that I also enjoy, which occurs with the most convincing pictorial illusions: that brief moment of disorienting wonder, a tiny temporary crack in the veneer of mundane certainty when the viewer who thought they were looking at a photograph realizes that’s not at all what it is. I’ve heard that moment described as the point where “emotional certainties waver, and taste loses its bearings.” I like trying to access that vulnerable place with what I do, I think an artwork can be impactful there.
RH: How and why did you first become inspired to use your own blood as a reference point for your oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?
NB: 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. Blood in particular is such a powerful and universal symbol of life, and ironically, of death as well. I wrote in my artist statement for the exhibit at Sacred Gallery in New York City that blood “is the liquid life force that feeds our physical vessel, the container of our soul. Its hidden presence sustains us; the breach beyond its borders horrifies us. It plays an ever-present and meaningful role in the human lexicon, as a symbol of love and sacrifice, of familial bond and battle alike, its deep scarlet hue representative of passion and our most powerful, primal urges.”
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. Luckily I had the help of my dear phlebotomist friend through this process, and her arm appears in the exhibit’s large centerpiece painting as the only bit of a human figure depicted in the entire series.
But one of my primary goals, or hopes, with this series is 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, and I’m not trying to comment on a specific medical condition or treatment. 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. 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. The fact that it intersects with my personal life makes blood more powerful for me as subject matter, and I hope some of that translates to the viewer.
RH: What was it like doing such an intensive artistic study on your own blood?
NB: I had a lot of fun with it. Blood is just fun to paint, because it’s a living liquid that does so many things. Of course 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 so many great artistic possibilities, to say nothing of its powerful symbolic potential.
RH: Why did you choose to paint only still lifes for Blood Rituals MMXVI?
NB: Still life is my original genre, the one I learned foremost in art school and have the most comfort and familiarity with. I love the other classical genres too though, so I included a small nod to landscapes and figurative work in the series’ large centerpiece mentioned above, called Pull Me Through Time.
RH: Do you consider the paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI as still lifes or self-portraits?
NB: Primarily they’re still lifes, as most of the symbolism is impersonal enough to have universal meaning, and many of the arrangements are mysterious enough to invite multiple narratives or interpretations.
However, 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. And needless to say, the blood I used for reference is me, in a very literal and existential way.
One of the paintings is actually intended to be a much more direct reference to the self-portrait, and it’s titled as such. The viewer is invited to interpret the objects as parts of me and the arrangement as representative of my existence.
RH: How would you recommend that viewers try to interpret the profound oil paintings in Blood Rituals MMXVI?
NB: I love when people viewing my work engage with it deeply enough, and are informed enough generally about visual art, to formulate their own ideas about it. Hearing these is always fascinating to me; they’re like a mirror, reflecting back to me the effects of my visual communication, the aspects of it or elements within it that spoke something to someone. As an artist and a maker of visual communication, I can always learn valuable insights from these.
On the other hand, 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. 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 quoted above with the exhibition, for those curious to know where I’m coming from.
Aside from the statement, 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.
RH: Just to give us a sense of the symbolism behind your still lifes, what meaning do you intend a piece like “Banquet of Suffering” to convey?
NB: Speaking of stories, I wrote a short parable about that particular piece, as an accompaniment to a future publishing of the series in book form:
“In a world much like ours, there was a race of conquerors who spread death far and wide to finance their empire. They drained all the land of its lifeblood to hoard it for themselves and hunted those who dared oppose, a once vibrant population now reduced to a grizzled band of vagabonds and scavengers.
One autumn eve, as frost turned the last of the green to black and night descended, this race of false heirophants and infant gods and gluttons gathered for a feast to celebrate their conquest. Drunk with power, intoxicated by greed, they gorged themselves deep into the night. Grown soft in their decadence, gloating in their spoils, they grew accustomed to the dark–indeed, foolishly thought their revelry would never end.
But eventually the morning did come, as it always does.
In the cool dawn, scavengers found the remnants of depraved merriment: a candle still burning, blood still fresh in silver bowls, chunks of bread and flesh as if frozen in mid-bite. They ate from the scraps and sipped cautiously, weary and watching for their vanished oppressors. As the rising sun revealed the murky depths of the banquet hall, they saw the bloated corpses, and realized with sudden relief that they were safe: the conquerors had gorged themselves to death.”
RH: Do you have a favorite painting from Blood Rituals MMXVI and why?
NB: I don’t have a favorite. I think some are more successful on an artistic level than others, in terms of vision and execution, but this is just a technical self-critique.
Each piece carries its own particular meaning for me, and the process of developing each into its final form contains a series of memories, problem solving, and minor struggles, so they are all important and meaningful to me in unique ways.
RH: What draws you to painting landscapes?
NB: I’ve always been a nature lover, plain and simple, with an explorer’s urge instilled in me by my father, to adventure in the lesser-traveled and wild places of this planet. I’ve been determined lately to combine this with my artistic passion, so painting landscapes is a natural fusion of two important parts of myself. I especially enjoy the raw directness of plein air painting, which is an old term meaning on location, out in the elements. It’s a great counterpart to my controlled finesse process of studio painting.
RH: As a painter and tattooist, who and what are some of your greatest influences?
NB: Classical realism painters from antiquity and modern times, photorealism and its various offshoots beginning in the 60’s and 70’s, and too many other genres, periods, muses, artists, and amazing tattooers to name. I’m lucky to call some of them friends and colleagues.
RH: Do you have any other art projects currently in progress and, if so, what?
NB: For now, I’m just continuing to paint a few more related still life ideas that couldn’t make the gallery show deadline, as well as attempting some more complex and larger scale landscapes.
Additionally, I ended up culling a few pieces from the Blood Rituals series in order to keep the desired aesthetic and narrative intact, as a few of them veered into pure photorealism and lost touch with classical still life. In the future those outcasts will form their own offshoot series, since I love photorealism just as much as I love classical realism, and they turned out just as good as the ones that made it into the series.