How to Make Art in an Epidemic: Visual Artists Turn From Street Posters to Quiet Elegies
It is an appropriate show for an unseasonably warm fall day in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. A wall-sized grid of 155 black wire leaves absorbs the brilliant sunlight in the gallery, each work a tender tour de force, a portrait-tribute to a friend of artist Eric Rhein who has died of AIDS. Every slight steel leaf is encased in a shadow box, making it a minishrine. The effect is oddly comforting: there's "Terry With the Healing Hands" and "Orsini the Sky Painter," playfully titled works that must conjure up a flood of recollections for Rhein, and likely for other viewers as well. Leaf Portraits is his memory bank, an elegy that–until recently–we might have considered an old man's art form.
Rhein, though, isn't old: He is 37. The elegiac quality of his work is instead a sign that the Lazarus effect–the return to health of so many people with AIDS have experienced in recent years–is now being felt in the art world. Rhein conceived the show in 1996 after starting a successful course of treatment with protease inhibitors. "I was at an artists' colony in New England, which I wouldn't have been healthy enough to attend even a year earlier," he recalls. " And I had what I can only call a mystical experience. I was walking on the grounds in autumn leaves, and I felt like the spirits of those who'd died were supporting me, teaching me to walk again." As Rhein picked up leaves that reminded him of the appearance or personality of particular friends, the project was born. It continues to grow, with Rhein adding new works. Still, he reserves the right to remake any piece that is sold so that this personal archive will remain intact.
Leaf Portraits is a perfect emblem of the new ways AIDS is affecting the art world today. Bearing little resemblance to the challenging and outward-looking works that characterized the activist heyday of AIDS art, works by artists with HIV now often reflect on the body or, like Rhein's, the memory–if they are about AIDS at all. Few works about the epidemic appear in galleries today. Many collectives have dispersed, and many artists have moved on to create different, unrelated work. And, of course, too many artists with AIDS have died…
…Art has always played a role in coming to terms with collective tragedy, and the role of the artist has frequently been to bear witness. Surely an art of memory like Eric Rhein's can help harmonize our views by suggesting that honoring the past is one way to live more fully in the present…