Sunday, April 15, 2007

Eric Rhein 'Leaves' east village ...

. . . and it already feels smaller, less exciting.

Multi-media visual artist and wire-bender extraordinaire, Eric Rhein moved his artist's studio from the East Village to Long Island City last week. Before relinquishing the space to the landlord -- who plans on gutting, renovating and rent-hiking it -- Eric hosted a final gathering. The apartment-cum-studio is located on the 6th floor walkup on East 14th Street, between Avenues A & B and is about as "East Village" as it gets.

Eric lived and worked in the space for over 26 years and it was where he created his most memorable works of art, including my favorite,"The Leaf Project," in which he formed over 120 different leaves from metal wire, each a tribute to someone who died an AIDS-related death. Seen individually or in a grouping, the "Leaves" are magical, striking a pitch-perfect triple balance between the cascading delicacy and light of the leaves themselves, the sharp metal corners that are their edges and the floating shadows they cast back on the pages that anchor them in space.

Much like its host, this last gathering was intimate and sweet, with an edge. And, at the risk of sounding like someone who says stuff like I'm about to, the space felt "sacred." The respect for Eric -- his work, his journey, his unique voice -- was palpable. It was moving to see Eric interact with each person as they entered the space. Each time his face brightened with genuine surprise and delight. One could sense that he was holding each person in his gaze, meeting him or her in the moment, gauging energy, and then bending to catch each word, like a priest hearing a confession. In the midst of "mourning" this space where he had squeezed his soul into art for decades, had learned of his own diagnosis, had laughed, danced, and cried with too many angels now departed, Eric's priority remained the comfort of others.

For those of us who feel most at home East of Fifth and South of 14th, each change in the neighborhood (and there have been so many) feels like a small death. And this was no exception.

Guests were asked to take the crayons and markers Eric had provided and leave messages (thanks, hopes, sadness, regret, whatever) on the walls to be brought down and carried out of the space after the gutting. I wrote a note of thanks to two people I've never met, but I feel I've come to know through hearing Eric speak of them. The notes were to his mom, Shelbi Rhein, and his uncle (Shelbi's brother) Elijah "Lige" Clarke, the gay rights pioneer and partner of Jack Nichols who was randomly murdered in Mexico in 1975. Eric's Uncle Lige served as the inspiration for one of Eric's recent shows, "Uncle Lige's Sword", which was installed at The LGBT Community Center in New York City.

The last evening in Eric's East Village digs was bittersweet to be sure, but I wouldn't have missed it.

Bravo Eric!
The page is turned and a blank one awaits.
You know what to do!

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