Possibilities of Transcendence
Multidimensional artist Eric Rhein talks about the impact that HIV/AIDS has had on his life and his work as he preps a mid-career exhibition, “The Course of My Life”
by Sean Black
It is important for artist Eric Rhein to communicate the essence of his intricate artwork as precisely as he crafts it. He poetically describes himself in this interview as “one who integrates and draws from the many facets of the physical and mystic worlds: nature, mythology, spiritual states, the act of collecting and recycling, seeing and highlighting beauty where it hadn’t been apparent before.” Diagnosed with HIV in 1987, fifty-three-year-old internationally exhibited Rhein is a founding member of Visual AIDS’ Frank Moore Archive (formerly The Archive Project), the largest registry of works by visual artists with HIV/AIDS. He is best known for his ongoing work Leaves, a collection he began in 1996 to honor the people he knew who died of complications from HIV/AIDS, evoking those remembered through carefully hand-formed silhouettes of different leaves constructed out of wire.
An installation of eighty-three (out of over 200) Leaves tributes, along with an array of other carefully selected works amassed throughout the artist’s life thus far, will be on view at Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters this year in honor of World AIDS Day. Curated by Heather Cammarata-Seale, “Eric Rhein: The Course of My Life” will provide a glimpse into the artist’s past, a view of his present and a preview of his future. Using photography, paper, found materials, and mixed media to explore and understand humanity’s interconnections and relationships with the natural world, Rhein’s artwork serves as a memoir of his life experience, chronicling his formative years in New York’s Hudson Valley, his childhood summers in the Appalachian Mountains and adulthood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As part of J&J’s Corporate Art Program, the exhibition opens December 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey and will run through January 31, 2015. The show will be open to the public by appointment Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The artist is further revealed in our insightful and intimate conversation.
Sean Black: What is it you wish to convey in your work?
Eric Rhein: Since childhood, and heightened through my living with HIV and AIDS, creativity has been vital to my survival as means of communication with multidimensional realms. It’s accompanied times of spiritual expansion, vulnerability, grief, and resilience, cultivating alternative perspectives, and possibilities of transcendence. A drive to share the history of AIDS experienced by me, and my contemporaries that is held in my artwork, gives a sense of purpose.
Is this exhibition a retrospective of your work?
It isn’t actually a retrospective. It is more like a cross-section of artistic development over nearly three decades of my living with HIV. A retrospective would be more comprehensive, starting with butterfly puppets I developed out of silk chiffon stretched over wire, for the George Balanchine ballet, The Magical Child, shortly after my arrival to New York City in 1980, at eighteen. There would be inclusions from bodies of work created both prior to and after my HIV diagnosis, like a series I call “Hospital Drawings” from my 1994 “Artist In Residency” at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, and a portfolio of nudes.
Could you describe how the Johnson & Johnson exhibition was curated and what pieces of yours will be included in the show and the arrangement (if possible)?
When the curator, Heather Cammarata-Seale, approached me about an exhibition it was through her knowledge of my Leaves memorial. Once visiting me and seeing my body of work expressive of the range of my experience of living with HIV and AIDS, we agreed that it would be meaningful to have a broad spectrum. The earliest piece R.O.T.C. dates from 1987. It’s a morphing of male musculature with a military breastplate, constructed from metal, suede, brocade, and hardware. With long-term survivorship of AIDS being analogous to living though war, I see my creating R.O.T.C. just prior to my testing positive as being a premonition of years to come. From here selected works are like diary entries, from 1987 to today.
What mediums do you like working with?
I’m an equal opportunity material artist. Among the mediums represented in “The Course of My Life” are wire drawings, and constructions utilizing vintage jewelry, castings of natural objects, and carefully edited salvaged hardware. In addition there are limited edition photographs on subjects which overlap with works in the above medium, utilizing my mother’s pre-digital Nikon.
In our phone conversation you mentioned a type of spiritual opening alongside your physical deterioration around 1995, when death seemed near. Can you describe your evolution—coming back from the horizon of death, via the protease inhibitors?
A lot of this is recounted in my 1998 memoir, The Gathering (see below). Much has happened since my revival of 1996, and like many who experienced the grace of the effectiveness of the protease inhibitors, there are times when survivorship has been mercurial. I’m fortunate that my artwork continues to
be a healing force, and takes me out into the world. In recent years I’ve been inspired by younger generations of men and women, and those who identify as genderqueer, who have surfaced in the arts and activist worlds, like Visual AIDS and The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. They bring with them an evolved sensibility that accompanies contemporary possibilities, not only in the realm of HIV, but the evolution of humanity. My neighbor James McDonald, a young man of twenty-three, recently interviewed me for an article he’s writing about my artwork and survival. Through our conversation he shared that while he and his friends hunger for knowledge of the AIDS pandemic and its influence, its history isn’t taught, and it’s up to them to seek it out. It’s these kinds of interactions that are currently giving me a sense of renewal, with validation that my life and work is of historical significance, and contemporary vitality.
What are your plans for Leaves?
I will be continuing to archive, restore, and add to the piece, along with writing the biographies of those represented in the work, with the goal of exhibiting the piece in its entirety in 2016, which is the twentieth anniversary of Leaves conception and the release of the protease inhibitors.
by Eric Rhein (1998)
I’ve been pushed back from the borders of death, redeemed to life—escorted by the same spirits who comforted me on the precipice of demise. I’ve been awakened from a turbulent dream, or so it seems; awakened by a prince, with a pharmaceutical kiss.
I had aged prematurely—ravaged through the course of ten years with H.I.V. —When testing positive, my 27 year old body was still that of a boy, fresh from college; then it became that of an old man, leapfrogging adulthood to decay. Now, having been restored to health, I wear a man’s body that I’d lost sight of. It’s strangely unfamiliar.
The spirits of my Kentucky ancestors are with me. Their wisdom, imbibed from simpler life times, resonates in my devotion to autumn leaves I revere as tributes to fallen friends.
My Granny Corinne said the autumn leaves wear brilliant colors like their best Sunday school dresses to remind us of nature’s glory, even as they die. Granny Corinne is ever present. I remember when she died—I was less then five, and unafraid, as I sat alone—wearing short pants and a bow tie—in the parlor of our ancestral home. She was laid out for her wake—like Snow White in her deep sleep. The morning light was passing through the parlor windows, golden like the turning leaves. The parlor was divided from adjoining rooms by imported Japanese soji screens—their paper was embedded with butterflies and leaves. Their shadows began to migrate across the room with the shifting sun. —A butterfly kissed Granny’s forehead—another lit on my hand. —A pattern of leaves trailed my bare legs. The silhouettes fluttered, giving form to the spirits of departed kin—as they welcomed Granny into their fold.
We buried Granny in our remote family cemetery—the funeral procession recalled previous rituals—braving the crude path up the hill—preceded by pallbearers on foot, the mourners stumbled through brambles as they forged their way to the graveyard.
Returning from the burial, I remember Uncle Lige—resplendent—in long hippie hair and his funeral clothes, somersaulting with his lover Jack—down the hill through the fallen leaves.
Uncle Lige was killed when I was 13. —Like Granny, he is still with me in spirit. I’ve often called on him for his support and inspiration. —He once said to my mother, “Don’t be surprised if Eric grows up to be Gay like me.” Maybe it was the way I’d stare at him, studying his every move—each flex of muscle—his facial expressions. Now, Uncle Lige watches over my shoulder as I wander the streets of New York City and inhabit his former East Village neighborhood. I wonder what it’s like for him, seeing our world swept by a plague.
Uncle Lige used to say, “You have to learn to bend like the willow.” —I didn’t understand what he meant until AIDS came into my life—and death became a constant “companion”—enveloping comrades in such rapid succession that I trip over the count and would lose their names if they weren’t housed in my memorial file.
There is young blonde Scott with the bright green eyes; Carlos—and Australian Tim—fair Pam—and the Jones boys, composer John and Jim the painter—David, the artist and activist—there is Huck, the frenzied Aries—beautiful Santiago and zany Ann—blue-eyed Roland—lovely Tina—and sweet Adrian—
I walk with the shadows
of the men I’ve known
and loved and tasted—
and feel, even still,
the warmth of their breaths
against my skin.
The spirits of my friends and lovers who died of complications from AIDS commingle with my departed ancestors—in an extended family tree.
My guardian spirits abound—sending me back into the world. Each lends their individual attributes. —They strengthen me as I feel my footing and learn to walk again in a world I was prepared to leave. My guardians have not relinquished me in my revival. They are stronger in me, as I am in myself. ◊
Sean Black interviewed Patrik-Ian Polk for the October cover story.