Photos Elegant and Elegiac
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Published in: January-February 2021 issue.


ERIC RHEIN: Lifelines
by Paul Michael Brown, Mark Doty, and Eric Rhein
Institute 193. 112 pages, $45.



A   HANDSOME, hardcover book, bound in grey cloth with a black leaf on its cover, opens to a mellowed color photograph of an artist’s studio. Delicate wire structures stand inside thick Plexiglas boxes, while more robust specimens, including what looks like a headless bust in a corset, are arranged in the middle of the room on a cloth-covered table. Hung on the wall, and leaning against it, are framed black-and-white portraits. In one, a naked man with an erect penis leans against a branch. In another, a naked man sits on the ground, his back against a tree. In a third, a man faces away from the camera, his naked back covered with what look like lesions.

            The monograph Eric Rhein: Lifelines collects ideas and images related to a 2019 exhibition of the Appalachian native’s work at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky. It successfully captures the elegant, elegiac mood of Rhein’s art, especially in these portraits of (often nude) men taken between 1989 and 2012, and in the delicate wire sculptures from an ongoing series, “Leaves,” each a memorial to someone Rhein knew who died from AIDS. (Rhein was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, at the age of 27.) The simple, strong lines convey specificity, yet there’s no elaboration on why a specific leaf was chosen to memorialize a particular person, or if some people belong to the same kind of tree—a missed opportunity.

            Accompanying the photographs are three essays: by former Institute 193 director Paul Michael Brown (who mounted Rhein’s show), by poet Mark Doty, and by Rhein himself.

            In “Lifelines,” Brown recounts a visit to Rhein’s Jersey City studio. “Nothing is out of place—all is arranged with meticulous grace.” Their recalled conversation touches on queer history, shared Southern roots, and ideas about family.

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Michael Quinn reviews books for Publishers Weekly, for literary journals, and for his own website at


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