Contemplations on the monograph Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 2020
Nov 29, 2020
I didn't know what to expect when Eric Rhein told me his first monograph[i] was coming out this year. I was excited and intrigued. Having known Eric for a few years, I wondered how his work would be framed and contextualized. Would the monograph be able to capture the intimacy of his work, as well as the universality of it?
We scheduled a lunch date for October 21 to discuss the upcoming book release in November; and of course, to catch up after the whirlwind of the last few months in lockdown.
I first met Eric while interning at Visual AIDS in the fall of 2016. His delicate nature of talking when earnestly telling me about his work and his life strikes me the most about him. Having been diagnosed HIV positive in 1987, one can immediately sense how appreciative he is of every moment of his life. For he knows what it is like to converse with death.
“It is more like a monograph-memoir”, he said to me over lunch. He had carefully packaged the book to give me. It was wrapped in foam and cardboard. Precious cargo.
Unlike many monographs with single introductions by one author, narrowly focusing on the perception of an artist and their works, Lifelines felt more personal. The structure is more relaxed, and less academic and rigid. It felt right, it felt like Eric.
Maybe it’s because the monograph is broken up; three essays written by three different men. Each perspective allows the viewer to gain insight into Eric's life and his work, with the concluding essay Notes from My Treehouse, written by Eric, giving us a window into his experiences.
While looking at the book over lunch, Eric described the designing process from image selection to font style. His awareness of detail is apparent when looking at this beautiful and well-made publication. Later, while reading the first essay, Lifelines by Paul Michael Brown, I was struck by how accurately Paul captured not only Eric’s practice, but his entire presence. Paul described his interaction with Eric during a studio visit in 2017 at Mana Contemporary; “Eric’s words come in with strength that seems out of sync with his gentle character: he has a lot to say, and there’s an urgency behind every statement. In much of his artwork, and in the way he speaks, time and place collapse: 1967 and 1987 share a breath with the present, and all is alive at once.”[ii]
Eric’s practice revolves around his understanding of the human experience, the relationships we make, the objects we hold and attach so much meaning to. He works in multiple mediums to convey this: delicately constructed assemblages, wire drawings of leaves serving as memorials, his personal photographs, and watercolors. All made with the same intention of honoring love, emphasising the importance of touch and the connection to nature, and his chosen and blood familial history.
Eric had someone in his family that was not only gay, but openly gay and proud of it. Most of us queers[iii] grow up having no one in our family that can we can relate to, and with that begins the journey of trying to create our own ‘chosen’ family that understands and appreciates us for who we are.
One of the first pieces shown and described in Lifelines is Uncle Lige’s Sword, 1998. The piece is made with a shielded sword brooch and it was owned by Eric’s famous uncle Lige Clarke, also an activist during the Gay Liberation Movement in the 1960s-70s who was murdered in Veracruz, Mexico in 1975. Uncle Lige’s Sword is prominently made up with pages from a medical textbook that reference techniques used to count blood cells, which is emblematic of Eric’s practice. Eric’s work is layered, one element of any of his works can tell you its own story. Dainty, what some would consider feminine sculptures or objects are encased beautifully with background texts reminding the viewer that not everything is what it first seems.
Mark Doty describes in his essay this search for tangible confirmation that queer people go on to feel not alone; the search for objects (and people) that reaffirm that they aren’t freaks but one of many. “[These objects serve as] evidence that you’re not in this entirely on your own. If you’re lucky, or maybe even persistent, someone will be wise or kind enough to help you start to tell the story that your life will become.”[iv]
Eric’s story is part of the queer history, and in particular the (ongoing) history and legacy of AIDS/HIV in the United States. Throughout his life Eric has lost friends, lovers, and acquaintances to HIV/AIDS. The loss, which occurred repeatedly for years can have a toll on any person. In the midst of COVID-19, more people are exposed to the complexities of unexpected and recurring grief and loss. Eric reflects on this stating “AIDS Survival Syndrome, with its physical, emotional, and financial realities, isn’t lost on me, a cellular memory of illness and grief accompanies survivorship, along with bandages holding lives together. We’ve lived through a war.”[v]
How does one manage more than one loss at a time, especially when you are also battling with a sickness? When everyone around you seems to be sick and suffering? How do you make memories and honor life?
The ongoing Leaves series, featured throughout the book, is Eric's answer. The series feature throughout the book. Delicate wire sculptures of individual leaves represent lives that AIDS has taken. It is a reminder of the fragility of life. Beautiful, but as with all things of nature it will inevitably diminish and expire. Yet, unlike a natural leaf, or a person, this imitation of life will remain long after we are gone. It is a statement of resilience of queer culture and the people that have found avenues of not only surviving but refusing to be forgotten. For Eric it is his ability to still be here, he writes, “…the stories of my friends who died are embodied in the objects I create. Shell-shocked as I am, I have a renewed sense of future.”[vi]
Throughout the monograph we see black and white photographs taken by Eric, dates spanning from 1992-2012. When looking at the selection of these dreamlike images, including many self-portraits, I can almost feel the soft skin in the photographs. Hauntingly beautiful at first glance, but on a closer inspection, it is painful trying to touch ‘that beauty’, and ‘that moment’.
With his lens Eric captured beautiful interiors with men silhouetting open spaces and nature. Some still with us, some now passed on. The current lives of these men aren’t the focal point in this context, but what is important is the moment that Eric captured in his frames. Mark Doty eloquently puts it as, “The intimacy of sexual experience speaks to the most fundamental of human wishes: to be held, embraced in all senses of that word, and to embrace another. And in caring for the very ill, many of those same qualities reside”.[vii]
The AIDS pandemic is remembered most strongly as part of the 1980s, but the ‘AIDS cocktail’[viii] was not available until 1995, making the early 1990s the height of deaths and the overall spread of the virus. We are starkly reminded of this in the last essay, where we see watercolors, such as A Mother Tears (from Hospital Drawings, St. Vincent’s Hospital), 1994, resembling tear stained paper made during what Eric refers to as his unofficial residency while hospitalized at St. Vincent Hospital[ix].
Eric’s story, his life, his art practice, is unique but also universal. He expresses his own grief and healing, in a way that allows the viewer to experience it for themselves. His poetic and documentarian narratives capture the horrible exquisiteness of his journey, elevating it to the sublime for all to witness. I have many friends that are long-term AIDS survivors, including Eric. Others simply tried to exist during the height of the AIDS crisis. I have always felt the need to reach out and connect with people who lived through this period. To share their stories and experience for others to learn from and remember. I occasionally wonder why I have the need to understand and feel this unspoken connection. For Eric the answer is simple, “For me, perceiving the young as reincarnations of people who died during the ‘80s through the mid-90s is visceral.”[x] I do not know if that is possible, there is no way to prove it, but it feels right and true.
[i] Brown, Paul Michael, Mark Doty, and Eric Rhein. Eric Rhein: Lifelines, Institute 193, KY, 2020.
[ii] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 12.
[iii] I am and identify as, a queer cis female.
[iv] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 20-21.
[v] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 99.
[vi] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 99.
[vii] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 24.
[viii] Verville, Julie. “Understanding ART for HIV”, healthline.com, December 23, 2019. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/
[ix] Matt. “Many Layers of History at 7th Avenue and 12th Street: St. Vincent’s Hospital”, Village Preservation Blog, July 12, 2018. Accessed November 19, 2020. https://www.
[x] Eric Rhein: Lifelines, 109.