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Q&A with Award-Winning Artist and AIDS Activist Eric Rhein

Celebrating his 30-plus years of art and advocacy, Eric Rhein (BFA 1984 Painting and Sculpture and MFA 2000 Fine Arts) was honored last month at the 12th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards, in recognition of his contributions to AIDS awareness through artwork and activism. Founded in 1988, Visual AIDS is a contemporary arts organization committed to raising AIDS awareness, creating dialogue around HIV issues today, and supporting HIV+ artists. Rhein, who has been involved with the organization for over 20 years, received the 2017 Bill Olander Award, presented each year to an individual in the creative arts living with HIV. With Rhein, Visual AIDS also recognized artists Zoe Leonard, Sur Rodney (Sur) and Brice Brown at the May 22 ceremony and benefit.

Rhein is known for a media-spanning practice that incorporates sculpture, photography, drawing, found text and materials, frequently layered together. His work often links the delicacy and transcendence of the natural world with that of the human body—and psyche—invoking the sensuality, strength and vulnerability of corporeal life. Since his HIV positive status in 1987, Rhein has charted an ever-evolving course of personal experience in his artwork; it is through images and objects that he confronts and comprehends (his diagnosis, the world around him) and shows compassion.

Rhein’s commitment to advocacy and activism is long-standing as well. Since its inception in 1994, Rhein has been a part of Visual AIDS' Frank Moore Archive Project, founded by artists Frank Moore and David Hirsch to preserve the work and legacies of artists with HIV/AIDS. Originally a slide archive, it is now available online as the Visual AIDS Artists+ Registry, and is the largest archive and registry of works by artists with HIV/AIDS. Rhein was also recently interviewed for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art's “Visual Arts & the AIDS Epidemic Oral History Project,” which collects interviews with key witnesses to the AIDS epidemic and documents its impact on the visual art community.

I spoke with Rhein on the occasion of the important award and his many achievements.

Can you describe your involvement with Visual AIDS over the years and what the organization and this award mean to you?

Visual AIDS has been an integral and vital part of my life since 1994 when I was included in initial planning of how the organization could transform in order to prioritize giving support to artists living with HIV and AIDS and address the tremendous loss that was occurring of artwork by artists who had died. Those who had founded Visual AIDS were experiencing a level of burnout from the overwhelming concern of the period. I was feeling vulnerable, having freshly shared my HIV status publicly through an installation I’d created for The AIDS Forum at Sculpture Center. Helping to conceive the preservation of the legacies of those of us living with HIV and AIDS, and those who died, while my own work was being documented was extremely comforting and assuring. Having my Phallic Self Portrait included in the Visual AIDS 1995 exhibition “The First Ten,” which announced the formation of The Archive Project [renamed The Frank Moore Archive Project], solidified my including my HIV status in the conversation about my work. Experiencing the depth of Visual AIDS contributions to the evolving conversation around HIV and AIDS is continuously rewarding, and brings meaning to my survival.

Has your practice changed since the '80s and '90s and the heights of the AIDS epidemic?

Without being aware of it at the time my life and artwork was informed by the AIDS pandemic from my very first year in New York in 1980 at age 18. Though HIV wasn’t in my frame of reference that first year, my quick absorption in the East Village art scene during my freshmen year at SVA set a course for the years ahead into today, that would be interwoven with what AIDS would bring. My friend David Nelson, who along with fellow artist and activist Nancy Brooks Brody was with me in Hannah Wilke’s Foundation Sculpture Class at the School of Visual Arts, died in 2013 and is one of the more recent inclusions in my AIDS memorial Leaves. Constructing the leaf for David, as with the others I honor in Leaves, was a means to acknowledge what he had been through and his contributions that still resonate. I continue to relate to my artwork as a memoir to my life that includes those who inform it. David Nelson is included in Visual AIDS Artists+ Registry.

Is there art you make or a part of your practice that is not a form of activism? I’m curious if the two can really be extricated from one another, and if that’s something you think about.

My body of work as a whole from when I tested positive at 27—30 years ago come September—traces my history of living with HIV and AIDS, and it has been important to me to share this publicly, for my own sense of inclusive identity and as a contribution. The themes running through my work are universal to the human condition—particularly its vulnerability, resilience and possibilities for transcendence. The AIDS crises brought a heightened awareness of these.

There’s over a decade between your BFA and MFA tenures. What prompted you to return to art school?

My undergraduate period at SVA between 1980 - 1984 came when I was full of youthful creative imagination, and opportunities to realize my visions seemed limitless. While I was able to hang on to an amount of optimism through the years of health challenges and near death from AIDS, and I continued to create and exhibit, this faded and my world seemed smaller by the time the Protease Inhibitors came out in 1996. This was medication that transformed the treatment of HIV; they lowered my viral load to undetectable, and renewed my vitality and sense of future. The School of Visual Arts giving me a scholarship to get my Masters Degree in 1998 contributed to my world broadening again.

Is there an aspect of your time at SVA that you hold on to or that continues to inform your artmaking?

My keeping in touch with the School of Visual Arts continues to enrich my life and I see this a partnership along with organizations like Visual AIDS, giving meaning to my survival, as an avenue to contribute what I and my community of long-term survivors have to offer from our experience. I am continually in dialogue with writers and curators younger than I relating our history. They see my generation's experience linked to theirs. Nothing validates my survival more.

What are you working on these days?

Currently I have several pieces of my work from the 1990’s included in an exhibition that exemplifies this, “AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism” at The Museum of The City of New York. The curator, Stephen Vider, is in his thirties and has put together an exhibition that honors the history of HIV and AIDS, and cites its contributions with a contemporary relevance. What I feel seeing my work within this context is beyond words.

Rhein’s work at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue), part of “AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism,” is on view through October 22.

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