Robert Sherer has blood on his hands. It is his blood. And it is the blood of his friends.
He always asks before he takes it.
And like the undeniably hypnotic patter of Count Dracula seducing his victims to lend him their necks, Sherer is very persuasive. Eventually his friends and colleagues give in.
In our culture of "CSI" and lurid TV news, Sherer's bloodletting might conjure up images of serial killers and satanists. But Sherer isn't a ghoul. In truth, with his groomed beard and retro glasses, Sherer, a very boyish 50, looks like a 21st-century spin on a '50s beatnik, albeit with a lush, lazy Southern drawl.
Sherer discovered the possibilities of blood in 1998 when he struck gold in his own thigh, courtesy of an X-Acto knife accident. The ensuing gush set off a light bulb.
"I quickly collected the squirting liquid in a hermetic container and placed it in the refrigerator." Later Sherer began using the blood, dabbed from a quill, to paint. It took him about a year and a half to come up with the right combination of blood thinners and varnishes.
He indicates a painting titled "Disarmament" from 1999 featuring oily, coffee-colored splatters of blood exploding like paint pellets on the paper, "I hadn't even worked out the chemistry yet," he observes of a process of chemical experimentation that eventually led him to the more satisfyingly visceral sepia reds of today.
These days Sherer's fridge is filled with blood: "I realized it's like a cemetery. You see the names of my friends and their life essence in these vials.
"Very kind of creepy."
The paintings in Blood Works: Portraits of Love and Loss in the Age of AIDS, on view at Kennesaw State University Fine Arts Gallery, are romantic, heady, creepy and cautionary. Sherer sees his works, which use both HIV-positive and -negative blood, in some ways as parables, cautionary tales about love and lust. In the delicate but deadly modern morality of Sherer's blood paintings, there are toxic bachelors and delusional virgins. The work is about "the complexities of romantic life," he says. Like decapitation.
In "Ain't Love Grand," a female praying mantis decapitates her mate during sex. Flora and fauna are used to demonstrate Sherer's by turns jaundiced and amused vision of contemporary romance. The locusts and thorned roses tell dark tales of AIDS and the perils of entrusting your heart and genitals to handsome strangers. His work is often a commentary on the deceptiveness of appearances, like "Encounters," where pollinating bumblebees have been painted with both HIV-positive and HIV-negative blood.
"I've had several people come to me and say" – Sherer's voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper – "this is the positive insect."
Sherer's Blood Works is the outgrowth of his art-world education at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Atlanta College of Art, and a small, sanguine subgenre of artists such as Marc Quinn and Andres Serrano, who have incorporated blood into their work.
But while the conceptual thrust of Sherer's art comes courtesy of the Rhode Island School of Design and the Atlanta College of Art, his point of view is equally informed by a Southern childhood growing up in the small farming community of Jasper, Ala., where his female relatives taught him about pruning and cultivating God's verdant bounty.
"Both of my grandmothers were these Southern ladies. Their aesthetic was Victorian," he says. With their oval and antique wooden frames, Sherer's blood works reference matronly domesticity: samplers and needlepoint and other lovely homemade objects hung in living rooms. Sherer uses those pretty, ladylike frames as ironic contrast to his bloody tales of sexual predation and corrupted innocence.
Though AIDS has dropped from the front page, Sherer hopes his artwork will remind people of its ongoing relevance.
"I hope I'm keeping the issue on the front burner," he says. "Anyone who thinks the AIDS crisis is over is very sorely mistaken. It is destroying Africa and India."
As an associate professor of drawing and painting at Kennesaw State University, Sherer says he's still shocked by the sexual adventurousness and sense of immortality demonstrated by his heterosexual college students. The HIV-positive blood Sherer uses is sourced from a heterosexual friend whose husband brought it home as evidence of his extramarital exploits.
Despite the declining newsworthiness of AIDS in the age of Britney, the notion of HIV-positive blood still has the power to shock. "There's that visceral fear that the HIV can jump off the picture and get them," Sherer says of how he's watched some viewers recoil from his pleasant images of birds and bees when they read the wall text describing their genesis.
Something about the medium, and the bloodletting involved, seems to compel people. It is universal, but also very particular. Sherer's work speaks to the sacrificial dimension to art-making, and how a lifetime of bloodsucking one's own feelings, relationships and experience is a kind of emotional bleeding all its own.