Noam Parness, Assistant Curator at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, reviews Eric Rhein: Lifelines, the first monograph of Rhein's work. The book is available to purchase from the publisher, Institute 193, and in bookstores across the country.

Eric and I meet on a deceptively sunny rooftop in Chelsea in mid-November. I temper my anxieties, given the rise in COVID-19 cases, by agreeing to meet outdoors and distanced. I don’t remember the last time we’ve seen one another. He sweetly brings a warm pot of coffee for us to drink while discussing his new book, Eric Rhein: Lifelines, inspired by the 2019 exhibition of the same name at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky. He has carried the coffee in a dark green wicker basket. “My grandmother’s,” he tells me. Inside the basket are also cookies, a copy of Lifelines, and two books co-authored by his Uncle, Lige Clarke (1942-1975), and Clarke’s partner, Jack Nichols (1938-2005). Clarke and Nichols were editors of GAY (1969–1973), the first nationwide weekly gay newspaper in the United States, and co-authored a column “The Homosexual Citizen” for SCREW magazine beginning in 1968. The importance of the heirloom, of legacy, and of bloodline in Rhein’s life and work becomes clear to me as we talk, even more than it is already evidenced in Lifelines.

Lifelines surveys Rhein’s artistic practice between 1987, the year of his HIV diagnosis, and 2019, sharing his visual artwork in the forms of photography, sculpture, and drawing. Rhein has perhaps become best known for his delicate sculptural work often created with wire and found objects. His ongoing Leaves series, begun in 1996, honors hundreds of individuals that Rhein has known who’ve died from HIV/AIDS, each work composed of a wire outline in the shape of a unique leaf adhered to paper. His Bloodworks series appropriates pages from a textbook on blood, assembling them in poetic formations with wire, found objects, even jewelry. Some of his ghostly wire and thread constructions imply both bodices and the bodies that wear them—like Bill (1997), which usually hovers high above my desk at work. Rhein informs me that Bill is named after Bill Jacobson, the photographer, though it is not intended to resemble a likeness. The work’s quiet yet intricate composition suggests the sewing of skin, of veins running through, of sinew and spirit beneath.

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Uncle Lige’s Sword, 1998. Wire, paper, and found objects, 16 ½ x 22 x 3 inches

In Rhein’s 1998 work, Uncle Lige’s Sword, a mixed media assemblage presents book pages, wire, and found objects, forming what appears to me a book laid open. The center of the work, perhaps read as the book’s spine, contains his uncle’s brooch, a small sword. As with much of Rhein’s work, the suggestive translucence of wire implies both an exterior and an interior—the spine of the book and its internal pages simultaneously face us. It seems apt that this work takes the potential shape of a book, given the role Clarke’s publications have played in Rhein’s life. It also seems fitting that Rhein’s work takes the form of a book in Lifelines. He treated this book like one of his artworks, thinking through placement and design like a sculpture.

While Lifelines gives us a view into Rhein’s more familiar sculptural work, it draws more heavily on an archive of images—self-portraits that Rhein began taking in 1992, as well as photographs of lovers and friends. Almost always, the bodies in these images are nude or nearly so, sometimes tender, pensive, playful, erotic—still graceful, like Rhein’s sculptures. Their settings might be bedrooms, barns, woods, and showers. Not only a presentation of Rhein’s work, this book serves as a visual memoir of Rhein’s life since his diagnosis. To an unknowing viewer (and even a knowing one), the photographs might serve as a bridge between Rhein’s life experiences and the sculptures whose messages read less explicitly.

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From left: Company (self-portrait), 1998; Negative Space (Jeffery), 1993. Silver gelatin prints

The photo that graces the front jacket of this book, Company (1998), echoes Rhein’s Leaves project, though the two were not made in conscious connection. Company shows Rhein’s body at the center of the image, his torso upright as the trees behind him tilt in vertigo. His left forefinger and thumb grasp the base of a fallen leaf. Both hand and leaf are drenched in sunlight, casting a shadow onto Rhein’s sternum. Flecks of light pour through the deciduous holes in the leaf. The shadow is both an absence and a presence, not unlike his Leaves series where delicate wire retains only an outline of a leaf, like a line drawing. Each wire leaf cannot claim to fill the entirety of a life, only its outlines in memory. Rhein confesses to me that the title “company” refers to the company of spirits, of energies that can still be felt even if no longer quite seen; the company of the forest and of the woods. For Rhein, Leaves began when he felt the energy fields of those who’ve died from HIV/AIDS around him in nature. Each leaf visualizes some sense of their continuing company.

In another photograph, Negative Space (1993) Jeffery Albanesi, a furry, svelte figure, holds a rectangular paper with a leaf’s shape cut out in its center. The black paper covers part of Jeffery’s body to expose a leaf composed of his own chest, as though his hair was the leaf’s texture, its visual flatness betrayed by the shadow cast from his right pectoral. His cock hangs at the bottom of the image, severed by the frame of the photograph. Rhein was Jeffrey’s first boyfriend, and the “negative” in the title is a reference to Jeffrey’s negative serostatus. When paired with Company, Rhein’s self-portrait with a leaf might signal his positive serostatus, as well. Rather than the absence of a leaf in the portrait of Jeffrey, Rhein’s self-portrait displays a leaf in whole, a presence, a company. In both images, Eric and Jeffrey tilt their heads down toward their respective leaves.

A number of the images in this book were printed from negatives that Rhein revisited for the publication. In retrospect, these images became documents of Rhein’s intimacies with himself and others. Rhein first began taking self-portraits with a 35mm Nikon given to him by his mother. His then-boyfriend was a fashion illustrator, and so fashion photography surrounded them, inspiring him to begin documenting himself with a camera. Rhein’s own writing in Lifelines, “Notes from My Treehouse” is another document of his life, a short form essay that weaves expressions, memories, mantras, moving in and out of hospital visits, birthday parties, holidays, experiences with family members, friends, the Catskills, Kentucky, New York City, and so on. Accompanying Rhein’s work and words are two texts written by Paul Michael Brown and Mark Doty, intergenerational interlocutors, providing additional reflection, impression, and context for Rhein’s work.

Reading the word “lifeline”, the book’s title, I’m struck by the many lines running through this book, visually and conceptually: IV tubing, veins, branches, wire, willows, cracks in a broken mirror, the legacy of an activist blood-line, the frame of a photograph (a line of suspension, of fragmenting, of containing), the thread that binds this book, piercing and organizing its paper, interrupting images of found tree bark littering Rhein’s studio space. In Lifelines, Rhein employs the line to trace his own life and those who have impacted it, giving shape to memories. The different expressions of Rhein’s artistic practice compiled in this publication exemplify the throughlines in his work—the interconnectedness of nature, spirit, the body, and the commingling of sexuality, illness, and care.

Eric Rhein Kissing Ken self portrait with Ken Davis 1996
Kissing Ken (self-portrait with Ken Davis), 1996. Silver gelatin print

Noam Parness is an assistant curator at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Recent curatorial projects include Uncanny Effects: Robert Giard’s Currents of Connection (2020, co-curated with Ariel Goldberg) and Haptic Tactics (2018, co-curated with Risa Puleo and Daniel J Sander), among others. They are co-editor of Queer Holdings (2019, Hirmer Publishers).

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Eric Rhein