Blood is Jordan Eagles’s principal medium, potent with meaning and ripe for exploitation. There’s no getting lost in the artist’s forms, now on view at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery, and forgetting. Blood, with its messages of life and wounding, is front and center. (Eagles also has a small show at Lamontagne Gallery through Thursday.)
Eagles, based in New York, acquires cattle blood from a New Jersey slaughterhouse. He pours it into Plexiglas trays and boxes, which give the works their structure. His pieces — part painting, part sculpture — rely on process: how the blood is poured, and sometimes dried, and sealed in coats of clear resin. Visually, it’s a breathtakingly versatile substance.
British artist Marc Quinn famously froze his own blood into a bust of his head. Austrian Hermann Nitsch used it in feverish-sounding performances that referenced crucifixion and ritual sacrifice. Eagles, wisely, takes a minimalist tack. His Plexi containers have a cool clarity akin to microscope slides.
Yet they’re so much more. Curator Francine Koslow Miller, in wall text, likens the three vitrines in “CONFIGURATION” to sarcophagi. Eagles heightens the sense of ritual by placing a small pile of dried blood, rocky and crumbling, atop the third box, behind which hangs “UNTITLED (BLOOD MIRROR),” a piece so dark, you can’t miss your reflection.
The surfaces of “CONFIGURATION” are lavishly complex. Blood has mostly dried into a swirling, minute crackle, with meandering runnels that recall fingerprints. It chips in places; it smears and blots. The resin runs down the sides in muscular drips that evoke a downpour. The boxes seem to capture light.
The minimalist shapes pull taut against Eagles’s thoughtful, painterly expressionism. In many ways, he effectively manages his freighted material by pivoting between opposites: light and dark, micro and macro (the sun-dried blood in his “RED GIANT” pieces looks positively cosmic).
Then there’s color. The freshest blood is the reddest, as seen in the crimson “LIFE FORCE 2014-2,” in which a mutable, luminous form coalesces out of dark corners. The show’s palette runs from black to red, and sometimes Eagles utilizes white resin and copper. He has said he chose copper because it conducts electricity — another kind of force — and the metal’s reddish glimmer fits in perfectly.
For the “ROZE” triptych, he soaked medical gauze in fresh blood, sometimes with copper or blood dust. “ROZE 18” might have been pulled off a nasty wound — it’s the most graphic and least successful piece in the show. “ROZE 17,” against a white ground, is the most like a painting. It engrosses with its wavering grid, and the clots of red-black and honey-brown that play over it. Then there’s “ROZE 14,” in which the fragile gauze weave appears to have turned to copper wire, shimmering over a dark ground.
The three could be siblings — one angsty, one open, one spiritual. Or they could be read in progression, from clinging to life to releasing it.
The life-and-death associations are inevitable, and sobering. Eagles’s art is effective because he works with such restraint, devoting himself to process and leaving the meaning to us.
There’s an old-timey feel to the two shows at Clark Gallery. Dawn Southworth stitches and cobbles together found objects and other ephemera to remind us of the past grit and dreams we stand upon. Clark Derbes’s lean and remarkable sculptures, wrought with a chainsaw from old tree stumps, seem to quote old game boards, boxes, and quilt patterns.
Derbes riddles with perspective, volume, and space. “Sunny,” a box covered with a velvety checkerboard pattern, sits on a shelf. Look closely, and it’s really more like a drawing describing a box: A corner lifts into the air, and the object itself is no cube; it’s more like a wedge.
“Tom,” a wall sculpture, might be taken for a long, low box decorated with concentric rectangles, the shapes of which Derbes tweaks and cinches to animate the piece and skew our perceptions of its shape. Cracks open along the sanded surface, reminding us that this is a solid piece of wood; Derbes revels in the tensions between his deft illusion and the telltale revelations of it.
Southworth’s wall pieces have an obsessive quality, as if with her stitching and drawing she is relentlessly reworking and reclaiming the past. She draws on found paper, such as old letters and envelopes. She stitches and singes old fabric — often ironing-board covers or what look like dishrags. It’s as if labor, now and in the past, is its own kind of message, to which she gives form.
Sewn-together old hankies and other scraps of stained and burned cloth make up the ground for “Menagerie.” There’s a sense of feminine delicacy in the cloth’s polka dots and embroidery, to which Southworth adds her own drawings — some decorative and some awkward — reminding us of the veneer domestic work puts on a home, and the smudges and cracks it disguises.
She affixes to the surface a cutout of a coppery green birdcage, and fills the cage with gorgeously patterned drawings of birds. We can read a history of domestication into this work. “Menagerie,” despite its appealing decorative qualities, has a seared underbelly. It’s a picture of hard work.
Clark Derbes: American Sculpture
Dawn Southworth: An Unknown World
At: Clark Gallery,
145 Lincoln Road, Lincoln, through June 7.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.