Erik ReeL was born in 1952 in Seattle, attending Whitman College, majoring in mathematics; the University of California, at Berkeley and the University of Washington in art history and studio art, graduating summa cum laude in 1975. He studied art history with Rainer Crone and Ettlinger, 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, and a weekly column for the Bellevue Journal-American. He was arts editor for the Seattle Voice city magazine during the entire time of its short-lived run. ReeL sat on the Seattle Arts Commission Special Task Force for Media, and the Special Task Force for Educational Institutions in the Arts.
In his twenties, Reel was heavily involved in performance art, 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 he taught art history, color theory, and life painting at the Seattle Central Community College until he left Seattle permanently in 1984.
Reel’s visual work has alternated between phases of figurative and abstract imagery until 2009 when he stripped out all references to the physical world to produce his current, most widely known, non-objective style. This stripping out of all references to the material world pushes the work into a position clearly critical of the “hypermaterialism” of contemporary society.
Reel has primarily exhibited paintings in non-profit venues, local galleries, and group shows at local and regional museums such as the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Ventura County, The Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, where ReeL was given his own room, constituting, in essence, his own solo show within the group exhibition. His first solo museum shows were at the Whatcom County Museum in Bellingham, Washington, in 1986, and at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in California in 2016.
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 just under two 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, where he maintains a studio. In 2015 ReeL returned to writing about the arts online (primarily on theatre and major museum shows).
photo: Erik ReeL and Nash Rightmer at 643 Project Space installing Tabula Rasa show, 2013, photo: Rhonda P. Hill.