Born in Seattle in 1952, Erik ReeL attended Whitman College majoring in mathematics and philosophy, the University of California, at Berkeley, and the University of Washington majoring in art history and studio art, graduating summa cum laude in 1975. ReeL studied art history with Rainer Crone, painting with Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, Bob Jones, and Michael Dailey, color with Richard Dahn [a student of Albers], sumi-e with George Tsutakawa, and, independently, Chinese brush with Hsai Chen.
In the late 1970s Reel wrote on art for a number of publications including Vanguard, ArtExpress, High Performance magazines, Artweek, and/or Notes, wrote a weekly column for the Bellevue Journal-American, and was the arts editor for the Seattle Voice city magazine. ReeL sat on two Seattle Arts Commission Special Task Forces: Media and Educational Institutions in the Arts.
In his twenties, Reel was involved in performance art as well as writing and painting, performing in pieces at the Seattle Art Museum and Washington Hall in Seattle, usually collaborating with musicians and dancers, while exhibiting paintings regularly with the original Jackson Street Gallery located upstairs at 123 Jackson Street. For five years ReeL taught art history, color theory, and life painting at the Seattle Central Community College until he left Seattle permanently in 1984.
ReeL’s painting has alternated between phases of figurative and abstract imagery until 2009 when he took a position clearly critical of the hypermaterialism of contemporary society by stripping all references to the physical world from his work to produce his mature non-objective style.
In a presentation at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, Portland-based art critic, Jae Carlsson [Art Dish, ArtForum] pointed out ReeL’s visual and philosophical connections to earlier Seattle painters Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, while at the same time indicating that ReeL had pushed his work beyond Post-Modernist limitations. As well as these influences from earlier Seattle precedents there are influences from the Black Mountain Arts School via Jacob Lawrence and Bob Jones. An exhibition of Cy Twombly’s in New York in the late 1970s has also been cited by ReeL as an early influence during a talk in Santa Barbara in 2010.
ReeL’s work after 2003 features a technique consisting mainly of pastel and dry media used in conjunction with liquid acrylic paints in a way that ignores the distinction between drawing and painting. In a 2010 catalog of Reel’s work, art critic Nikki Arconi writes:
“ReeL’s technique exhibits a high degree of transparency, layering, sfgraffito and graffitto, with a strong sense of hand, the hand-made, and an absence of any references to the material world. This work can be seen as a thorough-going critique of materialism, the machine or machine-made, and the triumph of feeling over the manufactured. For ReeL, marking is a defining characteristic of the human and the primordial act of signification and meaning for human consciousness.”
In 2017, the following statement was published regarding understanding Reel’s work:
“Like an archaeologist uncovering the remnants of written language ReeL creates meaning from, not just what is visible, but in what has been obscured. To understand ReeL’s work one must look at his attraction to such seemingly incongruent influences as erased whiteboards, blizzards, improvisational music, and abandoned industrial sites. His work celebrates the meaning in remnants, the hidden, the random and destroyed.”
At times Reel has severely limited his exhibiting. For example, for a couple of years from 2007 to 2008 he exhibited only in shows promoting gay or LGBT rights and causes. He refused to exhibit in group shows from 1986 to 1999, or any shows from 1988 to 1999 with the exception of a modest solo exhibition of drawings at the Mazey Hickey Gallery in Seattle.
In 2012 ReeL met and two years later married Rhonda P. Hill in Ventura, California, north of Los Angeles, where he maintains a studio. In 2015 ReeL returned to writing about the arts online (primarily on theatre and major museum shows).