Leaves of Absence
Science meets spirituality on the pages of Eric Rhein's memorial "wire drawings"
When I arrive at Eric Rhein's East Village studio on a brilliantly sunny day, he sheepishly informs me that I'm the first "outsider" he's allowed into the two-room sixth-floor walk-up. Joni Mitchell sings from a portable tape player, and smoke from a stick of incense shimmies through the dense shafts of late-afternoon sunlight. If it weren't for the echoes of a distant siren, Rhein's studio could be on the bright Cape Cod beach or perched on the Colorado mountaintop–anywhere but 14th Street.
This urban retreat is where Rhein, a soft-spoken, ponytailed 36-year-old, creates his exquisite "wire drawings." These constructions–which will be displayed under the title " Human Biology" at the Donnell Library Center starting Sunday 31–begin with pages ripped from old biology and human anatomy textbooks. The artist then shapes long, thin wires into the outlines of birds or leaves, which are anchored over the pages' black and white illustrations. His most recent creations find him "riffing and improvising" with a more abstract and geometrical vocabulary, influenced by the likes of Mondrian and Miro. In these pieces, wires studded with rhinestones, trinkets and other found objects mimic charts and graphs, line drawings of spermatozoa and blood cells.
Rhein's seemingly clinical art packs a surprising emotional impact. His work draws heavily on his childhood in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, which instilled in him a reverence of nature–both its destructive and restorative capacities. Rhein also says that the Southern Gothic mentality of the region taught him to be wary of the danger and death that lurked around every corner: Killer lightning, floods, quicksand and copperheads were ample justification for this fatalism.
Critics have picked up on the myriad implications of Rhein's work. The New York Times raved about his "exquisitely wrought" "seductive and disturbing" constructions, citing them as "complex efforts to merge sexuality and beauty while giving an edginess to both."
Not surprisingly, Rhein's take is much more down-to-earth. "The work reflects the connection I feel as a human being to the natural surroundings. The metamorphosis that we go through as human beings is linked so directly to the constancy of the way nature changes. And that's particularly prevalent in the Leaves project, which began when I started feeling the spirits of all the people I've known who have died."
The project to which he's referring is Fly Leaves, a series of wire leaves on blank fly pages (found at the beginning and end of books) that commemorates all the people he's known who have died of AIDS---more than 120. He began the project in 1996 while in residency at the prestigious MacDowell artists' colony in New Hampshire. " I was moved to do these leaf portraits because it often seemed that people who deal with HIV go through a large transformation," he says. "Which seems both ironic and quite fitting, because they very often show their most vibrant colors in the state where they're seemingly going through demise. In reality, they're in a place of transformation, showing brilliance."
A bee the size of my thumb suddenly appears above Rhein's Leaves, which are arranged on the table; the insect looks like it might be right at home entwined in copper. Later, when I step out onto 14th street, the sun has disappeared and marble-size hail begins to pelt the sidewalk. I recall something Rhein said earlier about friends who were getting well after having been ill. He said, " It just seemed so apparent to me, in the surroundings of that autumn at MacDowell, that things aren't always what they seem." A startling crack of thunder makes a sly, resounding affirmation, and hail continues to fall.