By Arielle Dollinger
The son of a part-time home economics teacher and a prison warden, Huntington-based artist Andreas Rentsch grew up on a prison compound in Switzerland.
His most recent work explores questions of justice – a callback, he said, to his first 18 years.
“That obviously has shaped not only my life but also my work,” he said. “I was in close contact with many prisoners and that's also where a lot of empathy grew for the human conditions.”
As a warden, his father was open to exposing his five children to prisoners, Rentsch said. They “might have done something wrong, but they're still humans,” he learned through the close proximity to prisoners.
Today, Rentsch lives with his wife and their two boys – ages 10 and 13 – in Huntington village. The Stony Brook University photography professor currently has two pieces at the Heckscher Museum of Art, part of the “Modern Alchemy: Experiments in Photography” exhibition, on display until March 15.
Rentsch’s four siblings stayed in Switzerland when he moved to the United States in 1989. At 26 years old, having visited America one year earlier and traveling by car to places he had only read about, Rentsch enrolled in classes at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. He would later win a green card and the clearance to stay permanently.
“This is where I built a life and relationships and where I feel comfortable, so this is my new home,” he said. “I left because I found Switzerland too boring, but... with time, you start to appreciate your roots.”
When he returns to Switzerland for visits now, he said, he has a greater appreciation for the place in which he grew up, which he has realized is not so bad.
“Sometimes we have to leave to realize that,” he said.
Rentsch lived in New York City from 1989 until 2003, when he and his family moved to Huntington. They knew of the Heckscher, he noted.
“One reason why we moved here was also we liked the cultural aspect of Huntington,” he said. “We wanted still culture and being exposed to culture and a progressive town.”
Rentsch's recent works look more like drawings than photographs, he acknowledged, which is a result of his practice of “experimental photography” – a term used to describe the “Modern Alchemy” exhibition and the general practice of creating images through the photographic process combined with other processes.
“When you look at the show, you know, a lot of work looks very painterly, looks like drawings,” he said. “There's definitely a whole alternative way of how we can use the medium.”
The mixing of mediums in art is not quite uncommon today, Rentsch said.
“I think also sort of the barriers [and] disconnect between different mediums has sort of evaporated in contemporary art,” he said. “A lot of artists now sort of take from other mediums and they incorporate them.”
Jia Yao, a former student of Rentsch’s at Stony Brook, called Rentsch his “professor, mentor and friend.”
“The thing I like about him is his passion for his art,” Yao said of Rentsch, who also does commercial photography work. “After all those years of learning and doing wedding photography, he still loves it. I have seen how stressful wedding photography and other artists struggle, but Andreas still has the creativity to create new projects, even be a professor to influence others.”
One of the pieces Rentsch has at the Heckscher right now “possesses a very close aesthetic to maybe painting and drawing,” depicting two outlined figures with no faces. The second piece is a video – 2,600 still images that are used in continuation to create a film.
"Photography has a very, very rich tradition of, you know, exploration of the medium, of trying to find alternative ways of expressing ourselves and using the different techniques," he said. Rentsch has been taking photographs since childhood. He was “always drawing,” he said, and processed his first roll of black-and-white film when he was around 12 years old.
“To me, it’s just magic... just how we can capture light,” he said. “From day one when I used my first camera and to this day this is just [still] total magic to me, that we can just capture light and make it visible and the fascination has never left me.”