Blood Works: The Sanguineous Art of Robert Sherer

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com December 01 2012 4:00 AM ET

Robert Sherer likes a challenge. In his earlier Artist Spotlight portfolio of pyrographic works (wood burning) the problem of small fires and blistered fingers always looms. Then he began to draw in blood.

Sherer tells the story: "One evening, while trying to remove the blade from an X-Acto razor, it slipped from my hand and stuck straight up in my thigh. When I removed the blade from my leg, a red geyser shot into the air. I must have hit an artery. I quickly collected the squirting liquid in a hermetic container and placed it in the refrigerator. The next day, when I attempted to use it as a drawing medium, I found that the pigment instantly coagulated in my quill pen. After some experimentation and consultation with a medical technician, I suspended the liquid in a thinning solution, which helps it to smoothly flow.


"Soon after creating my first drawing in the series I discovered another setback to my medium: When it dries it darkens to brown within a day. It took several weeks of experimentation with sealers and varnishes before I found the best combination to preserve the sanguine freshness of my pigment. I now draw the HIV-negative blood from my arm with new clean syringes. The HIV-positive blood used in some of the artworks is supplied by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous."

The art in this article is from his recently published book Blood Works, currently available at Kennesaw.edu/ksupress and soon to be available on Amazon and at book stores.

Two current exhibitions: "Art, AIDS, America," a nationally traveling museum exhibition cocurated by Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka, and the "Head, Shoulders, Genes, Toes" exhibit at the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, guest curated by Judith Rushin.

For more information: RobertSherer.com

Click though for more from Blood Work.

Patient Zero
HIV+ blood on paper
12" x 7" oval
Collection: Jonathan Lerner

Sherer: This image results from my anger at the ignorance and stupidity of humanity. Like Typhoid Mary, Patient Zero refers to an index case or central patient in an epidemiological investigation. Patient Zero is the name given to the gay Canadian flight attendant who purportedly introduced and unknowingly spread HIV in the USA.

I feel tremendous pity for this innocent man. People were cruel when they should have been compassionate. Prudish paranoiacs vilified him as a mass murderer for being sexually active. Religious zealots, seeking fulfillment of biblical prophecies, broadcasted him as the personification of the plague. Religious fanatics are partly to blame for the AIDS epidemic amongst heterosexuals because they spread the idea that HIV was somehow a distinctly homosexual disease. "God’s curse upon the sodomites." How creepy Old Testament of them!

Nondiscrimination Policy:
Despite the wishful thinking of religious zealots, HIV does not discriminate based upon race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, marital status, parental status, or veteran status with its infectiousness. It is a virus that does not know or care about the particular conditions of your life!

The Birds and the Bees
HIV+ and HIV- blood/paper
18" x 15" oval  
Collection: Donald W. Brittingham

Sherer: A pretty picture about some of the ugly aspects of nature: sexual infidelity, indiscriminate pollination, self-destructive sexuality, etc. Like humans, the birds and bees promiscuously hop from one lovely little point of interest to the next. The birds seem caught in a love triangle, and the bees engage in a sort of kamikaze sexuality. A world of itches that must be scratched. A world where everyone is interested in someone other than the person they are currently with.

Love Nest
HIV+ and HIV- blood on paper
13" x 16" oval
Collection: Donna Lee Bartell

Sherer: Without failure, during every "Blood Works" exhibition someone will claim that they know which one of the little rabbits is painted in HIV+ blood. How absurd! One cannot detect HIV infection in the appearance of blood nor in the physical appearance of people. I once lost about 15 pounds on a low-carb diet. Everyone secretly thought I had AIDS and stopped flirting with me. Meanwhile, a handsome, athletic acquaintance of mine infected several of my other friends with the virus.

Protect Yourself from Pricks
HIV- blood/paper
12" x 10" oval
Collection: Steve Jarvis

Sherer: A well-dressed gentleman warning us about the dangers of unprotected sewing, thus the thimble. Obviously, the title and subject of this piece function on many different levels.

Sweet William
HIV+ and HIV- blood on paper
25" x 19"
Collection: Kenneth E. Ross

Sherer: Sweet Williams are among my favorite flowers. Growing up I loved to help my grandmother gather flowers for her splendid arrangements. I will always remember hearing her say, “Now, honey, cut down the most beautiful ones first.”

Since there is a correlation between HIV transmission and sexual attraction, it could be said that AIDS also “cuts down the most beautiful ones first.”

The bouquet gatherer is a grim reaper, of sorts. The Billys, Bills, Willies, Wills can’t help that they are beautiful. Too many Williams dead!

The Usual Suspects
HIV+ and HIV- blood on paper
34" x 28"

Sherer: “Urge and urge and urge ... Always the procreant urge of the world ... ”  — Walt Whitman

For many years, I have maintained a substantial visual resource file of floral structures that resemble human structures. The similarities between floral and human reproductive organs are particularly fascinating when one considers that we don’t even belong to the same division of the natural kingdom!

At some point I began to envision a large composition similar to the resplendent Dutch floral paintings seen in museums. Using photocopies and cut-and-paste collage techniques I composed the most over-the-top blood painting I have ever created. Its scale and complexity required that I divide the picture and my time into practicable studio sessions. Each session involved hand rendering, calculated drying, and then precise varnishing to prevent oxidation. It took me eight grueling days on this tight production schedule to finish the piece. I hope I never create another piece as demanding as this one. The final result is a veritable orgy of flowers. Since the theme deals with promiscuity I decided to add in a few locusts as a matter of vanitas.

Trojan Bouquet
HIV- blood/paper
27" x 20"
Collection: William Cash

Sherer: A safe sex bouquet for circuit party boys, a piece about personal protection. Initially, I was playing with the simple association of the brand name of Trojan condoms with the ancient Trojans. The idea became more sophisticated when I realized that the Trojans were destroyed because they let down their guard and allowed a magnificent animal with hidden dangers to penetrate their safety. The scene of reclining circuit party boys with their phallic-shaped pillows is an exact copy from an actual Greek vase.

Stigmata
HIV+ blood/paper
18" x 19" oval
Collection: Private

Sherer: Christian martyrs purportedly developed bodily markings (stigmata) corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Christ. Stigmata can also mean any identifying marks of shame or discredit or diagnostic signs of a disease. The stigma of being HIV+ and the subsequent discrimination frequently creates an unusual sort of martyrdom. Several of my friends with AIDS have spoken of themselves as “fallen comrades on the battlefield of love.” The stigma of being HIV− can also create an unusual sort of martyrdom. As a direct result of my own survivor’s guilt for not being infected while my friends died around me, I developed sympathetic symptoms of the disease for many years.