Still

Eric Rhein
Communion with Oak (self-portrait)
1998, gelatin silver print, 20”x16”

I walk with the shadows

of the men I’ve known,

and loved, and tasted,

and feel, even still,

the warmth of their breath

against my skin.

Eric Rhein   

1992

_____________________

Eric Rhein is an artist living and working in New York. He has exhibited widely in the United States and abroad, and has been reviewed in the New York Times, Huffington Post, ARTnews, Vanity Fair, and Art in America. He is included in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic: An Oral History Project. He is a founding member of Visual AIDS Archive Project, and more of his work can be found on his Artist+ Registry page.

Eric Rhein: Lifelines is the forthcoming, full-length book on his work, to be published by Institute 193. This monograph will feature a series of luminous photographs showing the artist with friends and lovers, in an era when intimacy and sensuality between queer men was as central to their wellbeing as any medicine. 

The Gathering

Company – Self Portrait
1998, silver gelatin print, 20×16 inches

Introduction

In “A Conversation with Eric Rhein,” an interview on this website, Eric was asked about some writing he’d done: a text which corresponds with many of the themes in his recent exhibition, Lifelines. Eric followed-up with this memoir, written in 1998, and we are happy that he’s shared it with us here.

The Gathering
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 only seemingly simpler lives and times—resonate in my devotion to the autumn leaves that 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 recalling 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—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.

Visitation (Fire Island)
2012, silver gelatin print, 20×24 inches

www.ericrhein.com

A Conversation with Artist Eric Rhein

New York based artist Eric Rhein speaks about his two exhibits, Lifelines, which
have been on view in his home state of Kentucky.
Lifelines is an exhibition at two locations in Lexington: at Institute 193 through
July 27 th , and the Lexington’s 21c Museum Hotel, through the end of August.
Todd Lanier Lester, of the Luv ‘til it Hurts campaign, asked Eric about the
shows—and his current and ongoing concerns.


TL:
What is the significance of your showing your work in Kentucky?


ER:
First, I want to thank you for having this conversation with me. As it happens,
today is the last day of the part of the show that’s at Institute 193. While the
companion show at the 21c Museum Hotel runs through August, exhibitions are
fleeting and only those who are geographically near have the opportunity to see
them. So, via this conversation, it’s rewarding when my artwork and the history
embodied in it can contribute to the conversation around HIV and AIDS, beyond
the walls of those exhibitions.


TL:
But tell us: How is Kentucky a special place for you?


ER:
Presenting Lifelines in Kentucky has a particular resonance. My family roots are
in Kentucky, and a sense of heritage and lineage are important to me. My Uncle
Lige Clarke was a formative pioneer in the Gay Rights movement of the 1960’s
and 70’s. He and my mother grew up in Hindman: a tiny, rural town in
Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains—yet he had the fortitude to help lead the
way to an expansion in gay identity through his activism, like helping to
organize the first picket for Gay Rights at the White House in 1965, and also
founding and editing the first national gay newspaper, Gay, with his partner Jack
Nichols, in 1969. I see my drive to include my HIV status in the context of my
artwork as being linked to my uncle’s activism.

TL:
How does your memory of your uncle tie in with your own growth?


ER:
My uncle had a spiritual core, cultivated through his studies of Yoga and eastern
philosophies, and his appreciation of the great American poet Walt
Whitman—in fact, he always traveled with a copy of Whitman’s book-length
poem, Leaves of Grass. My uncle’s legacy—a liberated vision of life as a gay
man—was passed to me through my encountering autobiographical books
which he wrote with his partner Jack Nichols. That was just when I was entering
puberty and finding myself. Their book about their relationship and activism, I
Have More Fun With You Than Anybody, continues to inspire me. Further, AIDS
activism—which has a spiritual aspect—has contributed to the evolution and
visibility of LGBTQ identity.


TL:
I’m quite taken with the title of the two shows: Lifelines. Where does this title
come from?


ER:
In the Institute 193 show is a series of three photos that I call Me with Ken. A
photo, from that series, is titled Lifeline. So the name of the overall exhibit
comes from that—yet reaches beyond to encompass themes running
throughout my work and my purpose for showing it. In that Me with Ken series
(which is from 1996) I’m pictured with my then boyfriend Ken, and it was
during the summer that protease inhibitors were initially released. Due to my
having been on those new medications, as part of a study, I was rapidly gaining
a renewed vitality. Ken hadn’t yet accessed the protease inhibitors, and was on
daily IV drips for declining health. Hence “lifelines” refers to this, and to a larger
interconnectedness as well. The intimacy and tenderness, heightened within
that period of shared vulnerability and mutual-caring, is shown in that series of
photos—and is something that I hope runs through my body of work, from my
photographs –to my AIDS Memorial Leaves.


TL:
I know that your project, Leaves, is an important part of your body of work. Can
you tell us about it?


ER:
Leaves is an ongoing project which is a growing memorial to those I personally
knew who died of complications from AIDS. For each individual (and sometimes
for couples), I express my sense of them through a wire outline of a leaf.
Lifelines also points to an intergenerational exchange that is important to me.
When Paul Brown, the director of Institute 193 first came to my studio, two
years ago, it came out that he was about to turn 27, the same age I was when I

tested HIV positive in 1987. He had gravitated to my portfolio of photographs
depicted me and my companions in the 1990’s, sighting that they affirmed an
intimacy during the height of the AIDS epidemic, which contradicted the
narrative he’d been given when he first came out. Paul shared that his coming
out, like many men of his generation, was colored by associating being gay with
HIV—and, consequently, fear of sexual expression. Shifting the narrative he’d
inherited to a more expanded one, was primary to our working together.

TL:
Can you say a bit more about the relation of HIV to your artwork and life?


ER:
Having lived with HIV for just over three decades, I’ve found that there’s a real
potential for transcendence—yes, even within this complex history of
vulnerability, loss, and survival (and, maybe, sometimes, because of it.) Sharing
my artwork, which came through my experience of HIV and AIDS—and sharing
it with younger generations—brings a sense of purpose and healing.


TL:
I hear that you have written a piece that corresponds with many of the themes
you’ve explored in your artwork (and which we just talked about). Can you tell
me more? Will we have access to it soon?


ER:
Yes, “The Gathering” is a piece that I’m happy to share with the Luv ‘til it Hurts
community—and I’m glad to send it along soon, to be available on the website.


TL:
One more thing: is it true that there’s a book coming out on your work?


ER:
Yes. It too will be titled Lifelines—and will come out early next year.

  • Rain (self-portrait), 1994 Silver gelatin print, 20x16 inches


= = = = = = =
Lifelines, an exhibit of Eric Rhein’s work, continues at the 2c Museum Hotel
through the end of August, 2019.
21c Museum Hotel
127 West Main Street
Lexington, Kentucky 40507
https://www.21cmuseumhotels.com/museum/exhibit/eric-rhein-lifelines/
Eric’s website is: http://www.ericrhein.com

= = = = = = = =

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