Eric Rhein’s new book tells the personal story of an artist’s life during the time of AIDS

Company, Self-Portrait (1998)

There always tends be a few key moments that drive every creative’s practice. For Eric Rhein, a multimedia artist who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, it was the childhood summers spent between the Ohio River Valley and the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. “These fertile regions are richly linked to the natural world,” he says, “and are influences that emerge throughout my artwork.” So much so that Eric has long explored these naturalistic tendencies through a broad mix of mediums, flitting effortlessly from wire drawings and sculpture, to photography and collage. His works have now been exhibited widely in the US and internationally, with countless features in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Artnews, Vanity Fair and Art in America to name a few.

Another defining moment for Eric arose when he moved to New York City in 1980, aged 18. Pursuing a scholarship at School of Visual Arts, he began to explore new artistic outlets, like that of building butterfly puppets for George Balanchine’s production of the ballet, L’Enfant et les Sortileges (which translates to The Spellbound Child). “I became saturated in the vital East Village arts scene,” he says. “It was a unique community that permanently altered the city’s cultural and creative landscape, which was in turn deeply altered by the AIDS crisis.” Eric tested HIV positive in 1987 at the age of 27, and with his diagnosis, all of these previous inclinations towards the natural world – alongside themes of resilience, vulnerability and transcendence – grew with even more pertinence. This manifested into a new body of work, titled Lifelines. 

Seated, Self-Portrait (1992)

A compilation of tonal, monochromatic photography and mixed-media, Lifelines is a series of artworks taken and collected between 1989 and 2012, now published as his debut monograph by Institute 193 and featuring essays from Mark Doty and Paul Michael Brown. The project emerged after shooting his first self-portrait, named Seated, captured in 1992 after this mother had gifted him a Nikon 35mm film camera. At the time, he wasn’t quite aware of the fact that he was about to embark on a three-decades-long piece of work, lensing his own experience of living through AIDS, as well as his friends and lovers. But in doing so, he ended up recording an important and personal period of history.

River, Self-Portrait with Russell Sharon (1994)

The photographic work featured in Lifelines was shot over many years and in a variety of circumstances. To detail as such, Eric was sure to include marked dates with each corresponding image, building a comprehensive timeline of an artist’s life during the time of AIDS. All of which is processed as silver gelatine prints, whereby the grain protrudes with a diffused, dream-like quality, endorsed by the photographer’s reliance on natural light. “In some of the photographs, our bodies, enveloped in sheets, are illuminated within sun-drenched interiors,” he notes, “while in others, photographs were lit through windows, doorways or tree branches.”

Having held back on publishing this work previously, Lifelines now depicts the full breadth of Eric’s experience: starting from the diagnosis, right through to his “return to life” brought on by the arrival of protease inhibitors in 1996 – a class of antiviral drugs that are now widely used as a treatment. “Some of the photos show me at moments when I was physically fragile, and others were taken after my ‘renewal’, when I was more robust,” he says. Meanwhile, several of Eric’s subjects within this project are no longer with us, and many of which were HIV positive when their portraits were taken. 

Kissing Ken (1996)

One image in particular, William – Silhouette, is a photograph of William Weichert, captured in 1992 during a summer spent on Martha’s Vineyard. Eric reminisces of how his lover wanted to be a pop star: “he wrote songs with lyrics like Hair Like Oprah, Butterfly Kisses, Love From Above and What About Tomorrow”. He passed away from complications of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 28, not long after the lifesaving protease inhibitors were released, which sadly weren’t effective for him.

Negative Space is a further picture shot in 1993 of his then-boyfriend Jeffery Albanesi. The title is suggestive of the fact that Jeffery was HIV-negative during this time – and still remains so – and looks at the tricky (and reassuring) relationship of being with a HIV-positive man. Meanwhile, Kissing Ken, from 1996, was lensed over the summer while Eric was part of a study for the incoming protease inhibitors, which successfully lowered his viral load, causing it to become undetectable. “While I was rapidly gaining health, my then-boyfriend Ken Davis had yet to be accepted into a study and was in declining health, which necessitated him having daily HIV medication drips. We’re shown in the apartment that I shared with I’m in East Village.”

Jeffery, Negative Space (1993)

These intimate and autobiographical works are housed amongst a complimentary mix of material-based pieces – like water-splashed marks and collaged findings. Each was composed from his hospital bed in 1994, while his health was extremely fragile. The AIDS memorial leaves, too, are of great significance to the artist, notably as they honour the people who Eric has known to have died with complications from AIDS.

It becomes evident throughout Lifelines, and with all of his activist-driven endeavours for that matter, that Eric is devoted to telling the difficult narratives around AIDS. He was close to death, and he wants nothing more than to put this new body of work in front of an audience who will appreciate his story.

Lifelines is published by Institute 193 and can be purchased here.

Photography by Eric Rhein.

Loving, Self-Portrait with Jeffrery Albanesi (1993)
Jeff and Tim (1996)
Rain, Self-Portrait (1993)
Ted Mats Me
Dodge, Slumber (1994)

Visual AIDS: Loewe x David Wojnarowicz

Jonathan Anderson, creative director of LOEWE, speaks to Port about his new limited edition collection, honouring the legacy of artist and activist David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990-91

Just months before being diagnosed with AIDS, artist David Wojnarowicz watched close friend and one-time lover Peter Hujar die from complications of the disease in 1987. He expressed the agony of situation in the way he knew best – a brutally candid and furious account in the essay Close to the Knives and a series of photographs taken at Hujar’s deathbed.

Wojnarowicz – who produced film, installation, sculpture, performance, photography, painting and writing – was uninhibited in his ability to drag the seedy and suppressed aspects of society into the light with an urgency that meant his art can hardly be divorced from his activism. Committed to battling the US government’s denial of the AIDS crisis, which had claimed the lives of so many of his friends, he was an outspoken and daring critic. To him, the inability of the government to react was symptomatic of a marginalisation and neglect that he felt personally, since an abusive childhood left him on the streets, where he fell into prostitution. At a 1988 ACT UP demonstration he marched in a jacket that read: ‘If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.’

David Wojnarowicz, Jean Genet Masturbating in Metteray Prison, 1983

Wojnarowicz died in 1992 aged 37, not long before HIV became a manageable virus and ceased to be a death sentence. He had became famous for his art – at times slow and enigmatic, at others fiery and frantic – through his involvement in the East Village art scene of the 1980s, but over the course of his life the struggle against AIDS became his central cause. Inspired by both aspects of Wojnarowicz’s work, director of LOEWE, Jonathan Anderson, is honouring the artist’s legacy by selecting four works by the artist to be reproduced on limited edition T-shirts, with proceeds going to the charity Visual AIDS.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1990

The LOEWE FOUNDATION is also participating in Madrid’s PHotoESPAÑA for the 8th time this year with an exhibition devoted to the photographs of Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz running until 26th August. The exhibition features works rarely seen outside of private collections and offers a vision of downtown Manhattan in an era of radical social and political upheaval, revealing the influence Hujar had over Wojnarowicz as a mentor.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, c.1982

Growing up I was always aware of David Wojnarowicz’s work. When I first went to Montreal I remember finding a book on him. The emotion of the work really means a lot to me and every time I look to his imagery it provokes a reaction. The 1980s in New York was an amazing moment, where there was a response to political change and political moments, in terms of the AIDS crisis, and people did not hold back in the way they turned to creativity to address their problems.

I was in a meeting one day and I thought I’d really like to do something to help a charity like Visual AIDS, and because I love Wojnarowicz’s work I was thinking how to get the work out there. Both the Worjanorwicz estate and his gallery P.P.O.W were incredibly helpful in making this project happen. I chose the four artworks to show the scope of Wojnarowicz’s work. – Jonathan Anderson

Writer, humorist and cultural commentator Fran Lebowitz will be in conversation with New York art dealer Gracie Mansion to discuss the cultural atmosphere of Worjanorwicz’s New York. 27th June, Mistral Amphitheatre, Palacio de Linares, Madrid.

Interview: Arnaud Valois

Port meets the reluctant actor whose understated talent owes as much to a passion for holistic therapy as it does to stage school

Arnaud Valois wears Saint Laurent AW17 throughout

In the 1980s, the gay community was being mercilessly decimated by a disease that the straight world was doing its best to turn a blind eye to, but there was a boisterous hotbed of active Parisian resistance which had other ideas. It’s this loose panoply of lovers, friends and rebels, forming the core of the activist group Act-Up, that acclaimed director Robin Campillo has brought to the big screen in the searing, personal and sometimes dreamlike fresco, 120 Beats per Minute. The film marks a return to the public eye for reluctant acting talent Arnaud Valois. Although he chooses not to define himself as an actor, his fragile yet powerful screen presence sublimely communicates the tragedy and beauty of a love that rages against both the machine and the dying of the light.

In the film – which has been lauded for its candid, unapologetic portrayal of gay sexuality, alongside the fervent activism of one of the most important movements of the ’80s – Valois plays Nathan, the HIV-negative lover of HIV-positive Act-Up firebrand Sean (a role played with startling verve by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). “We are very lucky in Europe to have people who fought for us, struggling for rights of all kinds – but we need to be vigilant,” Valois tells Port over an intimate coffee in the Marais. “It’s very important to stay aware.” When did Valois become aware of Act-Up’s activism? “I was watching TV one morning with my family and said, ‘Oh, what is that?’” he says, with a smile. “Act-Up had put a condom on the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. They also organised a big TV show in the ’90s called Sidaction, and it was on all the six main channels.”

Sidaction remains one of the most respected and successful charity organisations raising awareness of HIV and AIDS. It’s an interesting prospect for an actor to portray a docu-fiction version of recent history, especially when, to some degree, that actor’s psychogeography has been personally affected by the related events. How much did those memories shape Valois’s approach to his reticent and quietly sensitive character? “Robin said to us, ‘Please, don’t go too much on documentation or read, like, 20 books on the period. Trust me and trust yourselves. You are young people, so put your imagination in action and let’s work together.’” Given that Campillo is a seasoned Moroccan-French director whose own story and talent is steeped in the history of gay counterculture – as was shown in his 2013 classic Eastern Boys – one can only assume that such trust comes easily. “Absolutely. It was easy and comfortable to work with someone who likes telling his own story,” continues Valois. “It was interesting. The other thing is that he is a really good acting director. He has such a powerful vision of what he wants, so for an actor it’s quite easy. You need to learn your lines and be focused.”

Valois is somewhat playing down his exceptional talent. His propensity for switching mood with an endearing, nuanced grace is stunning, and perhaps somewhat surprising given that he turned his back on acting for a decade after graduating from drama school. “I don’t have two personalities, but there are maybe two sides to myself,” he says. “One is attracted by strong, powerful emotions and the other is driven by soft- ness and peace and calm. I don’t really consider myself to be an actor. I play a part in this movie – which I’m very proud of – but it feels strange for me. I see myself as a massage therapist and sophrologist who sometimes makes films.”

Sophrology is a relaxation technique, combining small movements and deep breathing to help control emotions and fears, and Valois’s commitment to the practice took him away from acting for a number of years. “I studied acting at Cours Florent for two years when I was 20 and was discovered by a casting director for my first movie, Charlie Says by Nicole Garcia. I started an acting career but it wasn’t what I expected,” he says. “I wanted to realise myself in another way. I wanted to be active, to do something with my life, so I went to study in Thailand. It was a personal journey, and then it became about other people – to heal people, first of all you have to heal yourself.” So how did it come to pass that his journey of self-actualisation should witness a return to the screen at all? “This casting director I used to work with 10 years ago called me and said, ‘I’ve got a project for you: Are you still an actor?’ I said no, not at all. But once she explained to me about the politics and historical side of what 120 BPM was, I said okay, I’ll give it a try…”

For Valois, ‘giving it a try’ means excelling in the communication of an extreme and tortuous emotional journey; perhaps his detailed understanding of the body, required for him to work as a practitioner of sophrology, underpins the utterly unique physicality he communicates as an actor. “European people usually separate head and body, but with Asian people their head and the body go together. So learning sophrology, which is a combination of head and body, helped me to redefine my vision of the human identity,” he says. “In France, we are very intellectual and it’s all about the brain. Robin Campillo is an exception because he considers the body and the head together. It’s very important for him, the way you move, the way you act, the way you position yourself on the screen…”

There is an intense physicality about Valois’s performance in 120 Beats per Minute that has been well documented in the press. The sensuality that pours through the screen doubtlessly owes a debt to his devoted practice as a therapist. “It has had a really big impact,” he explains. “When I receive clients at my studio as a therapist, I’m in a particular mode that requires being in empathy with people. I think when you’re an actor you need to be in empathy with your character and partners, so there is a similarity,” he continues. “It also helped me a lot after the filming to refocus, to get back to my life and not stay too much in the fiction of the movie.”

So are we to expect another prolonged retreat from the screen for the therapist-cum-actor, or can we hope to see him on film again soon? “I have an agent and we’re reading scripts together, so hopefully we’ll find an interesting one,” he says, thoughtfully. “I would like to do a biopic, something inspired by a real person – learning about someone and trying to not do an imitation, but instead creating another life for the character,” he says, before a pause. “It was such an intense and magnificent experience to make this film, and I was not really hoping for a return to acting. It would be interesting to do again, but I know this was a unique adventure.” We can only look forward to his next move, knowing that whatever it is, it will be deeply considered and profoundly authentic.

Words John-Paul Pryor
Styling Dan May
Photography Arnaud Pyvka
Clothes Saint Laurent AW17

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.