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Kentucky Artist Gaining National Recognition

It was clear that early in life Eric Rhein was a careful observer. In 1965 his uncle, Lige Clarke, had pointed that out to me. I first saw young Eric when he was aged four. … I remember him as a tiny flowerchild, … soaking up the rich earth's wonders along Kentucky's Appalachian ridges.

Today Eric lives in Manhattan. His artworks are shown worldwide, exhibited from Stockholm to New York to Portland. He has garnered praise in The New York Times, Ornament, Interview, and Vanity Fair. The beautiful child I knew–the one with a genuinely thoughtful manner–is now a man, still beautiful, as I excepted him to be because, as his handsome uncle often said, beauty's source is interior. This fact is easy to see in certain faces. Woopie Goldberg's face comes to my mind. Interior becomes exterior, in her's and in Eric's finely chiseled face, smiling most in his work.

In January, a New York Times reviewer, Holland Cotter, said of Rhein's art that it involves "complex efforts to merge sexuality and beauty while giving an edginess to both." The reviewer described the wire filaments Eric Rhein uses "to weave openwork, basket-like sculptures. The most striking of them are in the shape of phalluses and are intended as portraits of friends…; others look like filigreed Easter eggs ornamented with crystals and bits of found jewelry. In each, the combination of art and craft, delicacy and resiliency, feminine and masculine is exquisitely wrought and is, as it should be, seductive and disturbing."

What stood out to me in the Kentucky hills when Eric Rhein was only four, was his strong interest in makings of beauty, inner and outer, rare in one so very young. It was clear that he had become intensely aware of elements like space, symmetry, balance, and that he was actively incorporating them in himself. He must have looked at beauty not just to absorb it, but to pass it to others–as he now does–in his creations, each as an act, it almost seems, of celebration. In other respects, I think, Eric Rhein's art reminds me of his pioneering uncle's approach: celebrating daily life as spiritual experience, evoking the best we've known that, sometimes seems to have disappeared but, surprisingly, one finds in time, still lives on.

As I ponder Eric Rhein's art, Walt Whitman's poem, These I Sing in Spring surfaces. The great American poet saunters "far, far in the forest" and before he can think where he is going, he finds himself "solitary, smelling the earthy smell, stopping now and then in the silence." At first the poet thought himself alone. But wait! He says, "Alone I had thought, yet soon a troop gathers around me. Some walk by my side and some behind and some embrace my arms or neck. They the spirit of dear friends dead or alive, thicker they come, a great crowd, and I in the middle, Collecting dispensing, singing, there I wander with them plucking something for tokens, tossing toward whoever is near me."

If Whitman's poem were collected in Leaves of Grass, Eric Rhein has instituted an ongoing art project he calls, simply, Leaves. While walking "far far in the wilderness" Rhein finds leaves and sees birds flying, reminding him of his dear friends, and then uses soft wire bend silhouettes, mounting his work.

The "…ever-present spirits of Rhein's best-loved friends taken by AIDS are given tributes in his shows. HIV positive himself, since he was 27, Eric Rhein has, for the most part, avoided certain much ballyhooed drugs. But he also says he is presently filled with gratitude for his own currently healthy state since he started taking protease inhibitors a little more than a year ago.

Jack Nichols
The Letter
October 31, 1998

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