Beginning

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1700, acrylic on paper

Early in January 2016, I did an extended interview online with a collector now living primarily in London who was familiar with my work, the transcript of which is posted here in part in the Interview category. Except for this first post, the posts are listed in reverse order due to the nature of how blogs are posted chronologically, that is, the earliest are at the bottom of the blog file. To read the interview posts in the order of the actual interview, go to the end and work forward.  However, due to the nature of interviews, they can pretty much be read randomly.  There is a certain building of context toward the end of the interview, but most posts stand on their own and deal with a single question.


Q: To get started, I’d like to explore a few aspects of your background. You emerged from Seattle and the University of Washington School of Art right at the end of a particularly significant era in the history of that University’s art department.  At that time it was one of the strongest painting departments  in the world with 17 faculty, two of which were from the famous Black Mountain Arts school. In the previous decade it had produced Chuck Close and Dale Chihuly, and had a  direct connection to the Northwest “mystics” School of Tobey, Graves, Callahan, and Anderson via George Tsutakawa.  Yet, even though you’ve always been focused on painting, you were also quite active in the Seattle Performance Art scene of the time. Why was that? What was going on there? What was it like there at that time?

ReeL: There was tremendous cross-arts collaboration, interaction, and pollination.  Remember this is the city where John Cage met Merce Cunningham  while Martha Graham was at Seattle’s Cornish School of Allied Arts before they all went to New York. They had already set the collaborative tone.  By the time my generation came along, the young dance, theatre, fine art, and music scenes  [music from nascent Grundge to New Music to formal composers] were in constant communication with each other, attending each other’s events and helping each other.

There were people like Stuart Dempster, an ongoing member of the core music group that worked with Merce Cunningham, who were at the University and active in the local arts community. Dempster encouraged everyone to reach across media and ignore boundaries between the various arts.. This ignoring boundaries was an attitude congenial to my own approach to things. I’ve always thrived on diversity.

Q: And the visual arts scene?

ReeL: We had a healthy and thriving gallery scene, with the core older galleries like Foster/White who had handled the Northwest School and first launched Chihuly and many others, New galleries supporting the youngest artists and one of the best alternative spaces in and/or. Eventually the museum also started supporting the younger scene. For example, I was repeatedly asked to lecture there whenever I had an exhibition or an idea the curatorial department thought was interesting. They let me use their slide library and access their collection at any time.  Little things like that to make things easier.

With the collapse of the old port, the adjacent area, Bell Town, was converted from old Seamen’s bars to a thriving arts and cultural scene. Many of us, including myself, had our studios there or close by in the industrial spaces opened up when the shipping moved to the container port south of downtown. I shared a space with another painter on Virginia, about six blocks up from the Virginia Inn, on the fourth floor of an old furniture warehouse looking into the 30th floor of the downtown skyscrapers.  We had over a 1000 square feet with twelve foot ceilings and a sleeping area.  I was living on two to three hundred bucks a month.

[more to come]

Painting Technique

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1762, acrylic

Q: I’d like to move on to your technique.  At this point it seems you’ve established a distinct working method involving some very specific techniques. When did you start working in this way, or in this direction.

ReeL:  From the very beginning actually.  There were hints of it in how I combined dry and wet media in that first oil I did when I was twelve. That piece that got kicked out of the student show when I was 15 and put into the professional show was in some ways, technically, a forerunner of my current technique. Then I experimented with a lot of other approaches, often returning to develop this technique further.

When I left college and was involved with the and/or alternative space in Seattle, a bunch of us Continue reading “Painting Technique”

What IS the Question?

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1761, acrylic painting

Q: I realized I had started to ask a question about Schopenhauer, but we got completely sidetracked. I’m trying to remember what we were saying.

ReeL: I don’t think we got started on anything, other than that Schopenhauer is one of the few formal philosophers who said a lot about art in his major works, but wasn’t a specialist in aesthetics or art or anthropology or anything like that.

Q: Yea, So what can you say about Schopenhauer?

ReeL: There’s quite a lot to be said about Schopenhauer, but I’m not Continue reading “What IS the Question?”

Kandinsky

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1737, The Lack of a Certain Geometry, acrylic on paper, 2013

Q; So what about the spiritual in art? Why do you think Kandinsky had it wrong?

ReeL: Sir Herbert Read talked about an art of internal necessity. Kandinsky says this internal necessity is spiritual.  I don’t necessarily think that is true for everyone. For some, yes; for others, definitely not.

Kandinsky had a specific bias that blinded him to certain alternatives. But that’s OK, those alternatives were not relevant to his own art.  It just makes his essay a bit less universal. As we know, Kandinsky had been associated with the Theosophists, so he was pulling core ideas along these lines for his  famous essay from an earlier publication written by two theosophists. Kandinsky had to have had access to  this publication as it was written by a couple of Theosophists he had to have been aware of … in this publication they proposed a new kind of more truly spiritual painting that was totally abstract, in fact, non-objective.

But they weren’t painters, or at least painters anywhere near Kandinsky’s abilities. Consequently, their samples–their book had color illustrations of samples of this new type of painting they were proposing–their samples were not that persuasive as paintings. Kandinsky was a thousand times better painter, so his breakthrough is still a breakthrough, irregardless these other historical precedents. It is more a tale of how things never really arise from nothing. There are always precedents. It is the genius who sees new possibilities within all the mess that is already here.

Q:  Wait a minute. What?  [Are you talking about] Non-objective painting before before Kandinsky or Malevic? Continue reading “Kandinsky”

Art in Public Schools

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1760, acrylic painting

Q: What about art in school, before college or art school?  How was that for you?

ReeL: Art in school? Right. I don’t remember doing much painting in school before my last year in high school, other than finger painting, and very rarely, poster paints for what I considered really stupid projects.

It was mostly crafty projects, making stuff with paper and glue, and little idiotic holiday projects, all of which I hated. Totally turned me off.

Q: I wonder if any school teachers will read this. It sounds like if you had depended on the schools getting you interested in art, they’d have flunked Continue reading “Art in Public Schools”

Scenes

 

 

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1758, Sin Bad, acrylic painting, 2013

Q: I’ve heard that you had a somewhat unique situation as a kid with your younger brothers, in terms of how you played and a possible preparation for making art. Could you explain a bit about that?

ReeL: When I was six, I invented this thing we called “scenes”, where on a long strip of shelf paper a couple yards long cut from rolls my mother always kept around for lining the bottom of our shelves, I’d draw a scene, or schematic background, of say a landscape and then draw on typing paper figurines to cut out and play with on that background. In this way we could create any environment and people it with anyone or thing we wanted. Dinosaurs, spacecraft and super heroes, monsters and fabulous beasts, Continue reading “Scenes”

First Painting

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1759, R Up R Down, acrylic painting

Q: Do you remember your first painting.? I mean other than school work or what you considered kid stuff.

ReeL: Yea. It was a crucifixion in oil, about 30 by 24 inches, sort of a Baroque piece with deep shadows and a ray of light coming down from the right, after a Rembrandt. Jesus was very semitic: black kinky hair, dark skin. I was twelve.

My grandmother who was not religious, in fact she always made a big point about how the Scandinavians were converted to Christianity by the sword and had ruined Continue reading “First Painting”

Starting to Draw

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1757, acrylic painting

Q: When did you start drawing?

ReeL: I started drawing a lot by the time I was six. I’d shut everything out and just draw. My mother saw there was something extremely important about this and had a drawer with blank typing paper in it that I could use at any time and gave me a small set of pencils.

Q: But most kids draw. Was there anything different about what you were doing?

ReeL: I had two brothers. It was clear I was doing something quite different from Continue reading “Starting to Draw”

Special Ed

 

Erik ReeL painting
Eriki ReeL, Subtle Influence, acrylic on archival paper

Q:  OK.  So, wow, you’re put into special ed.  How’s all that play out?

ReeL: For speech therapy. The rest of the time I’m in a regular classroom. I don’t like this arrangement at all.

Mind you, my mother is frustrated, too. She doesn’t understand what is going on either.  Before I was born, she had a job administering IQ tests to gifted kids. She’s seeing what is going on at home, that I am way ahead in everything plus drawing all the time and she’s convinced I  should be going to a special school of a very different sort, not in special ed.

Then she finds out they’ve put me in the lowest Continue reading “Special Ed”

Starting School

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1756, acrylic painting

Q: This hearing thing, it had to affect you. What happened, when you started school?

ReeL: These things showed up early, as soon as i started school.

In kindergarten, the teacher suggested I go to remedial summer school for kids that might be having problems going into first grade. She saw I was having some problems but not sure what was going on.

Q: But the teacher must have Continue reading “Starting School”

Hiding

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1755, acrylic painting on canvas, 42 x 36 inches, 2012

Q: In terms of this hearing thing in your early childhood, why hide?

ReeL: Kids are ruthless. I remember how merciless the kids were with the nisei kids [Japanese-American, first generation born in the Americas] on the play ground who couldn’t distinguish between an “L” and “R” sound. Here I was, I couldn’t do that either and a lot more.

You learn early on to keep things to yourself. Avoid saying certain words, things like that. In my case I could only pronounce what I was told by my speech teacher was a “German “L””–in the front of the mouth with the tip of the tongue far forward. I couldn’t pronounce Continue reading “Hiding”

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1754, acrylic painting

Q: So when you started school, people recognized that you had some sort of problem, some sort of hearing problem?

ReeL: Not a hearing problem, no one looked at it that way, which was part of the problem: what they saw was a speech problem. They sent me to speech therapists. When I started school I was sent to remedial speech classes in the special ed program.

Q: But didn’t people think the speech thing might be based on a hearing thing?  Isn’t that sort of a common connection to make?  Continue reading “Getting to the Root of the Problem”

Learning Visually

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1753, acrylic painting

Q: So this issue with your hearing: did it affect your studies in  any way?

ReeL: Yes, in a very important way.

As far as taking in information, learning, it is far more difficult for me to learn things via spoken language; far easier to learn by reading or to learn visually. College is primarily a lecture system. You are expected to learn primarily through spoken language.

What saved me was Continue reading “Learning Visually”

Hearing Music

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1752, acrylic

Q: Does your hearing thing just affect human voices? What about music?

ReeL: it is hard for me to say. After all, I have no idea what other people hear. But I have been asked to write about music, but I cannot do that. I like a lot of music and listen to a lot of music, but I have no way of knowing that what I hear is anything like what everyone else hears, so I am not a very good person to be reviewing anything musical.

The result is that I do not hear certain spoken sounds with sufficient differentiation to distinguish between what other people hear as distinctly different sounds.

Q: What about phones?

ReeL: Phones are hard. I do not like phones. Phones are a problem. Ironically, they sometimes shift sounds enough in a way that makes it easier to understand someone. Most normal people do not realize phones distort pitch and sound ever so slightly.  If there’s any background or other noise that complicates the aural situation, forget it.  I avoid phone conversations if at all possible.

Dysfunctional Consonant Differentiation

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1751, acrylic

Q: OK, why were you in special ed when you started school?

ReeL: People saw that I had problems talking.

Q: Hard to believe.

ReeL: For awhile there, when I was a kid it was pretty obvious something was a problem. What wasn’t clear was Continue reading “Dysfunctional Consonant Differentiation”

Hearing

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1750, acrylic

Q: OK. I want to get at something that I get the impression you either do not want to talk about, or never talk about, or something, I’m not sure what. Something I think that others might think important to know about you, but that you, for some very personal reasons are not willing to reveal or talk about.

ReeL: What’s that?

Q: Your hearing.

ReeL: You’re right. I don’t Continue reading “Hearing”

The Taste of Others

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1749, acrylic on paper

Q: What did others say during the time you were showing interest in both Mathematics and art?

ReeL: They’d say, “Oh, so you’re going to be an architect?”

Q: Architect?

ReeL: yes, I guess that is the only thing they could think of that used both. Or some sort of design engineer, industrial design or something like that.

Q: Did you consider any of that?

ReeL: No. Never. Me? the guy who hates to make things?   Architecture, industrial design and engineers are Continue reading “The Taste of Others”

Mathematics and Art

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1748, acrylic on paper

Q:  You talk about this moment  where you decide to discontinue your Mathematical studies in favor of art at the end of your sophomore year in college.  I’d say it is fortunate your art side won out.

ReeL: Art always had the priority.  Art and drawing are things I’d been doing since I was six years old. I wanted to be a painter since I was nine.

The interest in Mathematics came later. My interest there  always had an uphill battle on several fronts.  For one it was almost in opposition to how Mathematics Continue reading “Mathematics and Art”

Wittgenstein

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1747, acrylic on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2012

Q: You mentioned Schopenhauer in relation to human will.  Schopenhauer is one of the few more formal philosophers who explicitly discusses art.

ReeL: Yes, that’s a short list, especially if you exclude the specialists in aesthetics.

Q: Yes, very short. Pretty much Plato and Nietzsche.

ReeL: and Wittgenstein and a few others..

Q: Wittgenstein?  I thought he said art was  Continue reading “Wittgenstein”

Miro

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1746, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: It seems to me the precursor to a lot of what we have been talking about is Miro. Rafael Rubinstein points out that Miro is sort of the original source for a lot of what is going on.

ReeL: Definitely. Miro is not only the source for a lot of the imagery, especially late Miro, but for a lot of the techniques and some of the ideas of the Surrealists as filtered through Miro’s studio practice.

Yea, in a way, Miro is the father of us all.

For example, how he used automatism in his late work, such as  when he  Continue reading “Miro”

Tobey and Pollack

 

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1745, acrylic on paper

Q: You mentioned that Tobey and Pollack were working within different historical and cultural contexts., what were they? What do you see working differently between them?

ReeL: Tobey was working with specific Asian influences: the sumi-e marks of the brush, the pre-eminence of the hand of the painter and the brush.

He was influenced by the thinking of Southern Sung painters who prized accidental brush strokes that broke  Continue reading “Tobey and Pollack”

Tobey in New York

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1744, Pi, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: OK, you sort of jumped around back there.   I thought we were heading toward something about Pollack, then suddenly we were on Mark Tobey.

ReeL: Tobey did influence Jackson Pollack.  Pollack himself says he saw the two shows of Tobey’s white writing work shows in New York City.

Right after this Pollack incorporates two aspects of Tobey’s white writing work into his own paintings.

First he shifts from  Continue reading “Tobey in New York”

Technicolor Tobey

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1743, Under Water, acrylic, 2012

Q: You seem to work from a lot of open improvisation in your new work. What are you major influences.

ReeL: There are a few different strains that feed into not only my work but other painters currently working in these improvisational modes.  Rafael Rubinstein has talked about this direction in painting a number of times.  He seems to be pushing Oehlen’s work at the moment.

But one strain starts more or less with Hans Hartung, who worked  Continue reading “Technicolor Tobey”

That Oceanic Feeling

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1742, acrylic, 2013

Q: So, for you, it’s all about internal experiences?

ReeL:  Mostly, but not necessarily.  Most days when I walk to my studio, I go by the ocean. I see the ocean, with the sand, the sea,  the sky. It is a very specific spatial and visual organization.  That has influenced  my work. Especially the spatial organization.

Non-objective internal experiences can  Continue reading “That Oceanic Feeling”

Audience Participation

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1739, Sein und Seit, acrylic on BFK paper, 2013

[this and following Sunday  blogs will continue the exerpting from the interview:]

Q: This internal necessity doesn’t have anything to do with the external world? with material reality? with your experiences?

ReeL: Not necessarily. Of course it can deal with my experiences.

I should point out that experiences do not necessarily concern the material world. Only an extreme materialist would go that far.  I  obviously can have internal experiences.

One of my pet peeves, if you will, and a sure mark of a hyper-materialist mindset, is when people in the exhibition world start talking about having to “engage the audience” by getting them to do something, meaning, invariable, doing something physical, involving their bodies, that we can see.

It’s such an insult to who we are as a human being.   My paintings engage the audience. The people looking at them are very engaged. They are doing a lot, internally, if they are really seeing my paintings.  Of course the viewer is doing something in the very act of viewing. Viewing, seeing, looking are acts. They are verbs.

To think someone has to do something with their body to be engaged with a work of art is one of the most idiotic of Materialist conceits.

I sometimes think that these people, and materialists in general are just asleep. Do they really think the world of things is it? Do they really not have an internal life? Do they really think that people do nothing when they really look at a painting?  No, I don’t think so. I find it hard to believe they think so.  They’re just asleep to what is really going on, hopefully momentarily, in a very specific way; but what they say sounds like a denial of our internal lives,  Ultimately their entire orientation and attitude is a deep insult to the viewer.

Sources of Painting

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1738, acrylic, 2013

Q: So you see internal necessity as a cognitive thing.  At least in your painting.

ReeL: That fits for a lot of what is going on in my painting.  It’s a lot about cognitive processing.   Yes.

Q: Do you see that for all painting? Or what painting should be?

ReeL: I’ve done painting that is not non-objective, even representational. Like I said earlier, I’ve always been a bit of a Jungian. There’s a whole mythic level of the psyche in there that can drive internal necessity as well. I see that as a totally valid place from which to approach painting.

It does not necessarily have to be abstracted from external reality, either.  It doesn’t necessarily have to drive painting derived from the external  world of phenomena, the material world.

Q: But it is pretty much built up out of experiences of that world, and art based on it  is going to have references to that experience and the things in that world.

ReeL: Not necessarily. For the most part, throughout the history of Modernist painting it does, and definitely for everything anyone has called Post-Modernist art.

But I don’t see that as a true limitation. You can have non-objective content coming out of the psyche. But again we are closer to the realm of the cognitive when we talk like that.

There are cognitive scientists out there  who are exploring that very thing: structures and pre-structures in our psyche that condition and drive our cognitive processing.  A lot of it is evidently mathematical, working with pure mathematical structures,  like algorithms in our brains.

One of the reasons I  liked it when someone called my painting “pre-linguistic” or containing a sort of “proto-language” of markings is that it is about how my mind works, prior to language getting involved.

This ties in with  a lot of what is going on in recent cognitive research. We have an incredibly abstract machinery, a lot of it is quite mathematical,  in our psyche driving a lot of our cognitive processing.  When I paint I feel I am getting at that. I certainly experience it as pre-linguistic.

Q; that is prior to the world?

ReeL: That is at least prior to our cognitive processing of the world.  Whether it is truly a priori … we don’t want to get into that one  here.  We’ll get way too bogged down in technical issues for an interview. The real point, for me, is that my painting has a lot to do with this level of cognitive processing, this non-objective terrain that exists in our mind, not in the world of material things.  My work is radically non-thing-like. It is not oriented toward things or thing-ness in any way.

At this point, I am not interested in making things, nor referring to them, and certainly not in representing them.

Before Kandinsky

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1735, V, acrylic on paper, 23 November 2012

Q: I’d like to get back to Kandinsky and his essay on the spiritual in art and what do you consider the generating force or ideas are  for non-objective painting?

I keep trying to get in on something on painting and how you think about painting. How you think about your own practice and you keep slipping off into something else.

ReeL: My position is closer to what Herbert Read said.  I feel Kandinsky made a dangerous mistake bringing in the spiritual. But he couldn’t help himself. He was a Theosophist.

Did you know that two of the Theosophists wrote a book about 6 years before Kandinsky’s essay, where they posited the possibility of a totally non-objective art of painting that would be a more spiritual form of painting.

Q: No. I didn’t know that! Are you kidding?

ReeL: No. They even had abstract paintings to illustrate it.

Q: No way. Before Kandinsky?

ReeL: Yes, more than half a decade before Kandinsky.  They weren’t very good paintings. After all, they weren’t Kandinsky.  But being a Theosophist, it seems to me that Kandinsky would have to have seen that book.  In fact there are passages in the book that are very close, conceptually, to ideas in Kandinsky’s essay. Too close for coincidence.

So that whole precedent argument between Kandinsky and Delaunay was bogus. It required the suppression of this book. A book that Kandinsky surely knew about.

I’ve actually seen a copy. There’s one in the library connected to the Amy Besant school in Ojai.

Q: The one connected with the Beatrice Wood center?

ReeL: Yes, that one.

Myths Never Explained the World

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1734, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: When I was growing up, in school they always explained the origin of myth as something  ancient civilizations used to explain  the world around them, that world of external phenomena.

ReeL: I never believed that. Even as a kid when a teacher told us that. I always thought that didn’t sound right.

It is what a hyper-materialist historian would be prone to think. Everything had to be reduced to some sort of attempt to deal with the material world, since that is all that exists for such a  materialist.

Humans have known better than that for a long time. Ancient Greece knew better, at least..

Q: Wait a minute. It was in explaining ancient Greek myths that  I remember being told that.

ReeL: It’s clear that at least by the Iron Age that wasn’t true.  Aristotle knew that  psyche is neither nous nor physic. He isn’t confused on that point.

But probably more importantly as far as the general culture thought, both Herodotus and Thucydides say things that suggest that the Greeks of their time were also not confused on that point. They clearly saw myths as something not about the real physical world, any more than modern teenagers  today would think X-men comic books explain our  physical reality. It’s absurd to think that reasonable men would think otherwise. They knew the difference between the stories they told and the world they lived in. They were not confused to that extent.

So that means as far back as we have a historical record thinking people knew the difference. But in school, we have hyper-materialist teachers who talk as if they didn’t. It’s complete rubbish to think they didn’t know the difference.

All good story tellers know the difference between reality and a really good story. I have a hard time believing human beings didn’t know otherwise at any time we’ve been human. It’s part of the machinery of deception and subterfuge that enables humans to survive and dominate.  I’m not sure we’d be human without it.

It remains to be seen whether robots, or artificial intelligences can know the difference. Right now, they are not even close. I suspect it is one of the areas they are farthest apart from us.

Charybdis and Scyla

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1729, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: I’m not sure I follow you at all on what you said about an art that is non-materialist and non-spiritual, or that I can agree with you  Maybe you can clarify..

ReeL: It’s a  great fallacy, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material world. To say that you have either the spiritual or the material is not necessarily the full spectrum of options. Too much of today’s  thinking, if you can still call it that, is  too polluted with archaic ideas inherited from the past, in particular the baggage of Idealism on one hand and all the bizarre make-believe stuff  religions keep throwing at us on the other.

This dichotomy between material and spirit really doesn’t help us when it comes to non-objective painting.

Q:  But there is the physical, material world, or there is a non-physical reality which we traditionally –and maybe to mean radically different things– call the spiritual world.  The material and the immaterial.  You are saying that this dichotomy doesn’t hold up in some way?

ReeL: Definitely not, there is non-material that may not be spiritual.

In a way, it gets more obvious if you look at the question, not philosophically, but in terms of choices in the world as a whole, at contemporary civilization in general: In the world today, on one hand you have a pervasive hyper-materialism crushing the life out of everything. On the other hand you have the multi-headed hydra of fundamentalist religions fighting materialism, and these fundamentalist attacks on the  underlying scientific-techno-materialist foundations at every turn, but these fundamentalists are ok with using the weapons and benefits of the resulting technology.

They are both, interestingly, for the most part, against art, and if not against, at the very least intent on heavily constraining it and deforming it into a tool for their control.

What i am saying is that we must recognize that art is not on the side of either, nor should it ever be.  The materialism/spiritual choice has been corrupted into hypermaterialist/fundamentalist extremes. Art and culture lives on neither extreme. Totalitarianism lives on the extremes.

This is not a contradiction, for a lot of art is neither materialistic nor spiritual. It is something else. This is what both Modernism and Post-Modernism have missed. Art is something else. Both try to make it one or the other.   The issue comes up most clearly in non-objective painting.  Non-objective painting denies materialism, even denies the motif and object; but it can also deny the spiritual. So it effectively avoids the very destructive extremes that are attempting to pull apart our world today. Both extremes harbor, often explicitly, strong anti-cultural tendencies.

There are obviously choices outside the extremes of materialism and spiritualism..

Q: How? What? I’m not even sure what you are talking about.

ReeL: that is not easy to say. It requires freeing oneself from an almost unbelievable amount of baggage inbedded in our intellectual traditions. And I mean traditions with an “s”,  plural: all of our intellectual traditions. They are all polluted with strange ideas of the spiritual or religious that have nothing to do with reality-based thinking.  Yet, reality-based thinking strictly limited to the material world of things  is simply too limiting. It is a killer.

Philosophy has always recognized this, this is not a problem most philosophers get mired in, but at the dawn of Modernism, we let art get bogged dow into this mire. Before the industrial revolution so much art was commissioned by churches that art could not  dare  challenge the issue.

Q: OK, are you saying we have to rid ourselves of all the superstitions on the one hand, and get beyond materialism somehow on the other? But a lot of what art does is preserve, present, even invent mythologies. And a lot of our best art presents, represents, or deals with our material world.

ReeL:  Yes, we have to get beyond both superstition and materialism. As for mythologies, I’m a bit of a Jungian on that one. Myth can be a part of reality-based thinking, if we’re talking about dreams and internal realities. Myth addresses the reality of our psyche. If we don’t get that right, we are doomed. Yet, on the other hand, the sleep of reason breeds monsters.

 

Toward the Spiritual in Art

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1728, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: In view of what we’ve been talking about, I think we need to talk about the whole thing about the spiritual in art.  Especially since you do non-objective art, and one of the great sign-posts in the history of that kind of painting was Kandinsky’s famous essay on the spiritual in art. Your thoughts on that?

Do you feel non-objective art has a spiritual basis?  You talk about the necessity of non-materialist art.  Isn’t that necessarily  spiritual art or at least something along what Kandinsky was talking about?

ReeL: Oh, boy. Another book.  Short answer? No. I don’t want materialistic art, and I don’t want anything to do with spiritual art.

Q: Isn’t a non-materialistic art necessarily an art based on some kind of conception of spirit? Isn’t it this necessity that Kandinsky writes about?

ReeL: Yes that is what he writes about. But I think he is, in part, wrong. I say, in part, because for him, being a theosophist, it was probably true. But for me, and for where I think the culture is, and where the future needs to go, I say no, he is wrong.

Q: But is it even possible?  Is it possible to have a non-materialistic art that is not spiritual in some sense? In particular Kandinsky’s sense? in the sense Herbert Read describes  as a source of internal necessity?

ReeL:  Ok, when you say internal necessity, that is Sir Herbert Read, and I think you are on irmer ground because internal necessity doesn’t necessarily imply anything to do with anything spiritual.. I have a problem with Kandinsky’s use of the word “spiritual”, how he uses it, and all the baggage the terms “spirit” and ‘spiritual” bring in.  As far as there being art that is neither materialistic nor spiritual, of course it is psssible. In fact I would go so far as say that reality-based thinking will lead us to the point where it is inevitable.

 

Art Counts

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1727, Hovering, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: You mentioned visions of the future given us by science fiction narratives. How do you see art fitting into that future, those narratives.

I ask this because you said that one aspect of those narratives will almost certainly happen, but I don’t see art much in those narratives.

They are all too often narratives of a future where there is little or no art, or if there is art, it is almost a trivial afterthought.

Granted a lot of them are there to show us a dystopian future possibility in the hope of heading it off. But even the positive futures depicted don’t seem to include anything like art as we know it today.

ReeL: Yes. We do have this considerable body of thinking about the future of the human race that has almost no place for anything we now call art.

It’s no secret that science fiction usually tells us more about ourselves in the present than the future.  Nevertheless, a lot of that sci-fi narrative is about a world where everything is divided into everything that counts, literally, a world where everything  is based on mathematics: technology, including weapons and fantastic modes of travel, medicine, architecture,, and anything having to do with engineering. Basically these are futures including anything based at some level on applied  mathematics. and physics, which is essentially the same thing as physics is now  entirely based on mathematics

Interestingly, most of  what the writers imagine is already possible, or feasible or imaginable within the mathematics that we already know today.  The exceptions are spectacular exceptions which have caught our attention precisely, in part, because our current mathematics says they are impossible. The great example being  faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel.  So it is almost always a future world where everything that counts counts, that is, everything based on mathematics counts.

And art, and much of what we today call “culture” doesn’t count, in that most of it has little or nothing to do with counting. Hence it doesn’t count. So what doesn’t have to do with counting doesn’t count. In other words what doesn’t count doesn’t count.

Interestingly the one exception, of which there are a lot of examples, in the arts in sci-fi narratives , is music. But music is the one art that clearly seems more intimately connected to mathematics, and has been since the Pythagoreans made all their fuss about the connection to intervals on a string and scales and notes in music to ratios.  So OK, again, that which can be shown to count counts.

But in a way, all art and culture count.

Q: how so?  I mean, I know they count; but not in the way you are saying things count, that is, by being based on mathematics.

ReeL:  Maybe mathematics isn’t the right basis to begin with.  That would require a book to explain, I’m afraid. But I firmly think that it may be necessary to have that explained in a clear and accessible way. How art counts, that is.

Q: So maybe you’ll have to write that book. Just kidding.

ReeL: No need to. You may be right. I’m serious.  We may be approaching a moment in time where we have to show why art counts, for a world  that only thinks things that count count.

On one level a lot of people can see why it has to be so even in those narratives. Otherwise you are talking about a future that no one would want to live in. After all, that’s one of the big points Proust finally makes: in the end it is art that makes life worth living.  It gets pretty thin after that.

Q: Otherwise you are just surviving.

ReeL: In the end maybe not even that. I’ve known several concentration camp survivors; two quite  closely.  Every single one of them has told me that at one point or another, art, or something on that level was crucial to their survival.  Just surviving isn’t enough, when you are really up against a survival situation.  You need something else.

Q: a lot of people, I think, would put the spiritual as that something else.  Or are you saying that art should have a spiritual basis?

[to be continued]

Francis Bacon Was Right

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1726, Stone Valley, acrylic on paper

Q: So  you talk a lot about the evils of hyper-materialism.

ReeL: I would not say evil.  There are good reasons we live in a hyper-materialist age.  We are entering a period of history where the human race has the possibility of destroying itself and the possibility of unifying itself. In either case the survivors will have survived because they got the materialist aspect of reality right.

They will have to get things right.

Further, on the other side of things, a lot of people today feel the threat is from  an anti-materialism led by all forms of radical fundamentalist religions.

Q: Fundamentalists  could unify the world and win.

ReeL: Not likely.

Q: What makes you so sure of that?  There’s a lot of fear in the world about political entities like the Islamic State or ISIS.  What if they win, what if they take over the world?

ReeL: Think about what you are saying.  Fundamentalist religions, of all persuasions, don’t even believe in the core tenants of science, which are the basis of all manufacturing. You are talking about highly ideological groups of people that are not capable of manufacturing anything.  Their very world-view precludes the prerequisites.

But the real problem for them lies even deeper. Francis Bacon said it all a long time ago, at the very dawn of the scientific age.  People were really worried about the backlash of religion against the nascent scientific thinking of Bacon and his correspondents.

Bacon reassured everyone by saying, in effect, hey, science is just our best method of basing our thinking on reality, it also provides a method of checking, as much as is humanly possible, to make sure our perceptions are also in line with reality.

He then pointed out that  reality-based thinking will always eventually win out. Why? Because it has reality on its side.  It is very dangerous to not work in line with reality. Reality has a way of asserting itself in deadly ways.   If you aren’t in line with reality, it can be very dangerous  to your future.

Fundamentalists of all persuasions have a fundamental problem: their thinking is ultimately not based on reality.  Their basic anti-scientific orientation seriously jeopardizes their ability to innovate and manufacture. Which along with a lot of other things, seriously compromises their ability to manufacture weapons.  I mean, in the long run, it is those who can manufacture and use the best weapons that will win all hard conflicts and eventually control the world’s resources.

Q: But people control those weapons and Religions can control people.

ReeL: Well, we’re dipping into a discussion that we can’t hope to cover within this interview, but short answer to that is that history, so far, has proved otherwise.  Science, reality-based thinking, and those who can produce the best weapons have so far determined who has the resources and who controls the ultimate political reality of the planet.

This is one reason our age is a hyper-materialist age. We are in a global struggle for the globe, its resources, and human kind itself, and it depends on who gets the material world right. Hence hyper-materialism is a rational option.

Looking at things from another angle, I suspect all those science-fiction narratives that show a future where all inhabited planets are politically unified are not all  that far off. At some point the earth will be unified politically in  a more thorough-going form than we have ever thought of so far. Perhaps in a way we still cannot conceive of yet.  If the human race survives it will be through reality-based thinking, and at some point those who do this best will run the whole show, for better or for worse.  Reality is a relentless master.

Q: Hopefully not by the likes of Monsanto.

ReeL: Yes, Let us hope not. All the more reason to fight them now, while they are still beatable. Make sure they are not one of the players going forward. But when someone is bidding to make monopolistic moves on your food supply, the world’s food supply– and they’re a ruthless poison manufacturer at that–you have to take them very seriously as a major threat. They are automatically a player for the future if they control food supply.

Q: OK, now I am depressed.

New Media

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1724, Celeb Ration, acrylic on paper

Q: So you don’t think a work of art should be considered important for using a new medium?

ReeL: Only if you are a hyper-materilist, which most Americans are.  Otherwise, the medium, or anything related to its thing-ness, is, for non-materialists, of relatively little or no importance.

Q: But a lot of art made is all about its medium.

ReeL: Well, yes, a materialist will think so, but it is an extremely narrow point of view that thinks that way, a point of view that another age might consider or at least more easily see, as quite naive and narrow-minded.

Someone makes a work of art, and a hyper-materialist comes along and says, wow, it must be important because it’s made of piss and dung.  A non-materialist would say, who cares?  what’s it look like and what’s it mean to you as an image?

The hyper-materialist will say, hey, it’s important because it is made of piss and dung, that is the key to its meaning and significance, but they say this  because they are a materialist, they have this warped view of the world.  But in reality it’s an empty, trivial, circular argument, based on what is probably one of the most flawed philosophical orientations ever conceived.  An orientation, by the way, that is killing us, literally, killing us.

On the other hand, people get all worked up about it being made of piss and dung, or worse,  they actually get upset by this. But that is just a reactionary impulse driven by the narrowness of their world-view and experience. It  is because they are so narrow and so highly materialistic that they can’t get beyond themselves and their overly narrow view of the world.  But that’s THEIR problem.

Q:  But maybe art is there to point out people’s problems like that.

ReeL: yea, maybe, but people who don’t have that problem won’t care a hoot.  And though we may live in an age where this Materialist disease is pandemic, there is no guarantee anyone else will care.  It is, at root, an extremely narrow and parochial point of view and will be seen eventually as that, or a weird, and even perhaps dangerous, flaw of our age. In a way it is the great blindness of our age.

Q: But isn’t art that is so connected to its times important. Isn’t that connection significant?

ReeL: Yes and no.  It better have a lot of something else, otherwise it will be nothing more than sociology, a curiosity,  a potential trivial artifact of its time, like anamorphosis paintings.  No one today would consider the development of  anamorphosis paintings as a significant art historical event.

By the way, I pick the medium of piss and dung because these media have in our times in fact been parties to the very type of hoopla referred to above, even claimed as “revolutionary” materials. Ironically, the archeologists tell us that humans have been making art and building with piss and  dung for tens of thousands of years.  Hardly new; hardly revolutionary.

Q: Surely sometimes the medium makes a difference!

ReeL: Well, yes, we still live in a material world, so there are material dimensions to things. The invention of oil painting is a significant development.

The recent development, at the very end of the 20th century,  of pigments that can replicate the entire color range of human perception is  a similarly significant development, one sought after probably since humans first ground pigments. It’s the artist’s dream, the holy grail of painting, yet, ironically, it is  given virtually no attention, almost never mentioned.

But no painting is important simply because it is an oil painting, nor because it uses modern pigments. That simply isn’t what makes it significant.  To think otherwise is one of the great materialist fallacies.

Q: I’m not sure about that. Isn’t doing the first oil painting important in itself?  Look at the Bellinis or Titian!

ReeL: Actually those are counter-examples: oil painting was invented almost a century before the Bellinis painted in oil and the first painters to paint with oils are almost completely forgotten.

Oddly, in a way, some of the earliest cave paintings are the earliest oil paintings. But again, we never think of them in that way or focus on this. It’s an incidental fact.

The Bellinis’ and Titian’s paintings are considered important because of their quality and their historical importance within their context. Or, to put it another way, they are important because of their quality and their meaning within a specific historical context. Same with the cave paintings.

As for piss and dung, there’s a good chance they’ve  been used since Paleolithic times.

The other side to this is the use of new media with a technological orientation, like electronics.  I remember seeing an installation involving TV sets a couple decades after it was first exhibited.  I tell you, nothing dates faster than high-tech.  It becomes low tech in a very short time span, then looks quaintly archaic within  the same span of time that, say, a good oil painting still looks fresh and contemporary.  Sometimes nothing ages faster and looks more tired and worn sooner, than “new” media.

Because of this a lot of today’s curators are embarrassed to exhibit a lot of their institution’s purchases from the 1970s and 80s.   Laxt year I even saw a Stella sculpture that now looks just terrible.  It’s falling apart, and just looks blah, weak. It’s on semi-permanent display, but it is not going to hold up visually for much longer, so now its owners have a problem.

My paintings will  last a thousand years.  Easily.

Non-algorithmic Art

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1723, Sea Ice, acrylic on paper

Q: You’ve mentioned non-algorithmic art, the importance of non-algorithmic art. What do you mean by that?

ReeL:  A lot of the art that has been put into the Post-Modernist bin has had a lot of patterns in it. Others have played around with computer-generated art and so forth.  If something is patterned or can be created by a computer, means it can be reproduced by algorithms.

Some day people will realize that it will be very important to be able to distinguish human-made art from art generated by artificial intelligence.  Artificial intelligences, in theory, can produce anything that can be reproduced with an algorithm.

I am, specifically, making art that is non-algorithmic, that cannot be generated by an algorithm.  Someday people will finally realize that this is very important.

Q: so you feel that this is something outside Post-Modernism?

ReeL: In a way, a very important way, Post-Modernism’s blindness to the significance of the distinction between human and artificial intelligence is sort of its historic achilles heel.  It’s big blind spot.

Q: But I don’t see anyone talking much about this, at least in the art world.

ReeL: Well, maybe I am a bit ahead of the time, but in my mind we are already past the time. We know that right now people are thinking very hard about and designing autonomous weapons, which will, by definition be driven by artificial intelligences, that there is a huge effort going on, and has been going on for some time on artificial intelligences.

Maybe the art world is a bit behind on this because it has been relatively a bit behind the curve technology-wise for some time.  Not to mention  distorted by its materialistic bias:  The art world has been more concerned about technology in terms of it being “new media” or a new medium.  It gets all excited about someone using something as a new medium for art.  That is an extraordinarily naive, narrow, and extremely materialistic way of looking at things.   We shall soon see the error and perhaps even horrors of this kind of simplistic thinking, I’m afraid.

The Rah Rah Rah

Erik ReeL patinting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1722, acrylic on paper

Q; what do you mean by “all the rah rah rah”?

ReeL: When I was a kid and participating in  sports in school, there was all this hoopla and commotion around sports. You know, school spirit and all that rah rah rah: people would jump up and down and scream and get all excited about your name getting into the paper and all.  The school would want its athletes to get into this whole jock and school spirit thing.

I could care less. I just liked to play and run.  I didn’t care for, and in many cases actively disliked, a lot of the stuff to do with all the rah rah rah and noise of it all.  Big deal. But our times are really into all this making noise around sports.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cathartic release, at the moment,  but then there is all this other noise, away from the action, this jingoistic side to sports.

Q: People get off on it. It is a great distraction from their mundane lives.

ReeL: I was more into its developmental aspects. Catharsis, honing, testing  oneself, character. But that aspect seems to have gotten lost in there somewhere.  I enjoyed sports immensely.  But I was not into all the hoopla at all. The rah rah rah.

Q; so you were not the conventional jock in school.

ReeL: probably not. School administrators and coaches would get down on me sometimes. Sometimes in a very ugly way.  At 15, I was speaking out against the View Nam War, helping run teach-ins against the war.  I was noted down in the art building for doing nudes.  One classmate called them my “nudie lewdies” something that definitely disturbed some folks in the school front office. I definitely did not like pep rallies..  I never wore a letter or letterman’s jacket or any of that..  Some  people really didn’t like that and let me know it.  But it could have been worse, at  a certain point, they left me alone; after all, I was district champion in track, later conference champion in college, and so forth.  But I liked being left alone.   As far as all the noise, I could care less.  Maybe that is why eventually one of my favorite sports became cross-country running, a sport where no one, not even the cheer leaders, ever shows up.

Q: So this carries over into your art as well?  You never entered art competitions when you were in school or anything like that?

ReeL: Not in art.  I’ve also tended to avoid things like government funding, grants, competitions that lead to awards, things like that. I don’t want anything to do with any government.  I don’t think  art, at least what I do, has anything to do with awards., medals or any of that junk.

Q: What about juried shows?

ReeL: Well juried shows were the main venue where I was when I was growing up and my mother showed in them, so I did do those.  But that was just the normal way to show then.  Though even that got a bit odd: when I was 15 I entered this show’s student section. You see, they all had a student, an amateur, and a professional section. I got informed that I wasn’t in it and when I went to pick up my entry it wasn’t there. Oh, the woman said, it got kicked out of the student section and put into the professional section. They wouldn’t let me enter the student section after that; I always had to enter the professional section from the time I was 15 on.

Q: You must have felt good about that.

ReeL: It had its consequences that I appreciated.  When I went to the show itself, there were these two girls my age standing in the middle of the exhibition hall. They were all dressed up, they were the teen queen and princess for whatever it was that was sponsoring the art show. I knew them and they were girls that would never give me the time of day because of my neighborhood, I was from the “wrong side of the tracks,” so to speak, and they were very full of themselves.

When I walked past them, one of them turned and, in a very snotty way, asked me what I was doing there, like I don’t belong in an art show.  I replied that  I was in the show.  They would not believe it, the other one told her princess that I was just putting them on, that, anyway, it was impossible, for it was the professional show and  I didn’t even qualify since I was a kid.

So I pointed  out my piece and they went over and looked at the label. It just so happened to be hanging in one of the most prominent places in the hall. The centerpiece, really, to the most important wall.  They were visibly impressed.  At the point they realized that I was really in the show, their whole manner completely changed. They began flirting and wanting me to hang out with them and the whole bit.  Two minutes before they were indignant and thought I shouldn’t even be there.  Suddenly I go from scum from the other end of the pond, to demi-god walking across the water. So that day I saw a different side of art.

Q: So that part of the rah rah rah was OK by you, I take it.

ReeL: I saw art’s  power to cut through prejudice.  For me, it was more a matter of respect and the ability to cut through class barriers. That, to me, is very different from the rah rah rah..  Instead of being part of the brain washing, to cut  through the brain washing.

Whispering in a Loud Room

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1721, Five Double-Oh Three, acrylic on paper

Q: Speaking of veering off into subtlety. What about you? Your recent stuff has veered off into a lot of subtlety.

ReeL: Yea, I keep hearing that out of New York: “It’s too subtle for me” thing, except for say, Luhring Augustine, who basically say, “interesting, original, but you’re not famous enough.”.

Everyone  wants stuff that hits people over the head so it can pop out at Fairs, where everyone is walking around in this sort of zombiehood, numbed from the overload of all this stuff. Art Fairs are an incredibly degraded environment for seeing art.

So they need something obvious to hit you over the head. It may not hold up under extended viewing, but it gets your attention in all the visual noise.

Q: I’ve heard that the real test of a great work of art is the opposite: that it should hold up over extended and repeated viewing. I know that is true for me. The really good stuff seems to grow on me. I want to go back to see it again and again. Or I may even be put off by it at first and have to get my head around it in a new way before I can appreciate it.

Other stuff, I grow tired of quickly. Maybe first glance it strikes me, then I see that it doesn’t really have that much there.  I think there is more and more attention being paid these days to the one-hit, momentary wonders. But maybe that is how it’s always been and I am just getting more discerning as I get older. I mean, the seventeenth century, for example,  essentially missed Vermeer and preferred Rembrandt’s earlier, grander stuff rather than his late, much subtler masterpieces.

ReeL: There might have been an issue of exposure there. His early stuff was well-known; a lot of the later stuff was not that public in his time. Same with Vermeer, he wasn’t that well exposed in his own time, while everyone knew who Hals and all the seascape painters were.

Q: I’m not sure that detracts from my point. Where is a lot of the exposure coming today, but not the Art Fairs? We’re living in an age where loud has long predominated over subtle. You can’t whisper in today’s art market. So maybe those New York dealers are trying to tell you something you need to hear. I get the feeling you are not that concerned with anything called “today’s art market,” that you are more interested in following a specific, personal investigation concerning your take on two-dimensionsl imagery, what others have called your “pre-linguistic markings.”

But what’s the point if no one sees it?   Look at how much your exhibition history has been involved with alternative, not-for-profit, and museum spaces. More than a few of your recent shows I’ve seen, the work, even if it is in a pop-up space where you have full control and could sell whatever you want, the work has not even been for sale. Your last three shows have been in museums. You’ve virtually avoided the commercial gallery world almost entirely, including Art Fairs.

ReeL: Well, in a way, I’ve hardly exhibited at all.

Q: What do you mean? you’ve been in over a 100 shows, with maybe over three dozen solo shows. You just haven’t used commercial dealers and galleries that much.

ReeL: Well I’ve been around awhile, I’m 63 and have been painting professionally since I was 15, so it doesn’t take much exhibiting to get 100 shows, if you’ve been at it almost a half century. That doesn’t work out to too much. . I’ve really made very little effort to exhibit, and for long stretches of time, not exhibited at all.

Q: Now that you are in your sixties, are you interested in changing that? You’re work needs to be seen.

ReeL: Yes, I want people to see it. It is time to get it out there. But I’ve spent so many years on the outside, quietly enjoying the freedom of my privacy that I’m not sure I can change my ways. I like being left alone. There’s a distinctly reclusive side to my nature.

Q: Yet, you get along with people, you seem to enjoy people. I’d never guess you have a reclusive side, other than I see that you do not push your work out there at all. But your work deserves otherwise.

ReeL: Yes, the work deserves otherwise. I want people to see the work. People need to see the work. But I’m just not that interested in all the rah rah.

Q: The rah rah?

ReeL: Yea, all the rah rah rah.

School of Art

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1718, Null, acrylic on paper

Q: I want to get back to your life.  You mentioned the Triumverate at the University of Washington of Spafford, Dailey, and Bob Jones. What drew you to them?  What do you feel you learned there?

ReeL: I was the closest by far to Michael Spafford.  I probably learned the most about painting from him.  He had a looser approach that was all about constantly reworking the paint, which is something I’ve always done, though the end result is significantly different.

Q: So it was Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa, Dick Dahn, Michael Spafford, and then to a lesser extent Dailey and Bob Jones.

ReeL: and some of the art historians, like Rainer Crone. And Pracykowski, who had an obscure, subtle, more poetic approach that totally confused a lot of students. He said things that went right by a lot of them, but I loved his drawing classes. He used to be a classic, and quite good Ab Ex painter when he was young and then veered off into this odd, hard-edged mystical, floating spheres stuff that did no justice to the subtlety of his mind.

 

Culture vs Civilization

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1717, Dark Night, acrylic on paper

Q: There’s a lot of people doing interesting and lovely things. And a lot of junk. There’s a lot of people on this planet.

ReeL: We’re long past 17,000 citizens and thirty-thousand slaves living inside city walls, yet, I agree with Whitehead when he said the entire history of philosophy isn’t much more than a long series of footnotes to Plato.

And it’s unfortunate. for that slave thing alone, it’s unfortunate we haven’t moved further.

Q: What about art? Do you feel something similar? Are we, art-wise, barely past Athens?

ReeL: Better? Athens?  It’s the wrong question.  Art is not progressive. It’s difficult to get anything better than Cycladic figurines, and always will be. They are much older than Plato, but that is irrelevant.  Look at  neolithic cave paintings for that matter.  Some of them are fabulously good, even technically. Art is not progressive.

That is one of the great differences between culture and civilization. Culture changes, but is not progressive. Civilization definitely has the possibility for significant improvement. Running water and sanitation and better medicine are definitely improvements. But civilization doesn’t necessarily have to progress either, no matter how much people want to assume it to be so.

Creating culture is extremely difficult. The idea that everyone is an artist, at that level, is absurd. The ability to create something at that level is clearly quite rare. We need to become more civilized; but as far as art and culture, we are what we are, it is to be experienced, but there is no progression.

Q: And anything quite rare can be exploited financially. So you’re implying that one of the fallacies of an entire generation was the claim that everyone is an artist, which has led to a lot of junk, and in the end all they created was a greater awareness than ever of how rare it is and how thoroughly that can be exploited financially. Never has there been such an explosion in the art market.

ReeL: That’s not where I was going. I wanted to talk about how the dynamics of civilization create new needs for creating cultural relevance, for creating meaning within individual’s lives. How it is difficult to do this; most people don’t have the faintest notion how. You see, art and culture sustain and support the individual, people other than the “artist.”

Civilization, a good civilization should do so as well, and if a civilization improves, it improves the lives of individuals. But Civilization doesn’t necessarily do any of that. Empires live and die and civilization rumbles on, often without any regard to individuals. One reason all despots hate, or at least distrust, art and artists:  tyrants don’t give a damn about individuals, but art supports individuals.  To a Stalin, this is tantamount to a threat. At the very least a challenge to their authority.

Wars and break-downs in civilization sweep continents and millions die and suffer. Culture and art, on the other hand, have to support and nourish the individual; they have to create meaning for someone within a given civilization, or they would never be accepted as art to begin with. Big difference. One often poorly understood by historians, especially historians, including art historians, burdened by an expectation of linear progression or a bias toward a single monolithic culture.

Kenneth Callahan

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1708, Subtle Influence, acrylic on archival paper

Link to the solo exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art  Full Circle.

correction: Since I did the interview the following blog was posted from [posted 13 March 2016], I have checked on a few things and it seems my memory conflated two very different instances of meetings with Callahan. I first met him in the mid-60s and do not remember which show or which year, but it probably was not at the Henry Gallery as I stated in the interview. Ah the phantoms of memory. The rest of the description below pertains to that first meeting. The Henry comes in when I and my mother later also met Callahan at his retrospective at the Henry in 1973–after my second year in college– and Callahan  gave my mother a signed copy of the exhibition catalog, Universal Journey shortly after.  We visited his studio at Long Beach throughout the rest of the sixties,  Our last visit was in 1971.

Q: Did you ever meet any of the Northwest Four?

ReeL:  They were pretty much before my time  with the exception of Kenneth Callahan.  My mother knew him.  He had a studio on the ocean near Long Beach near a place my family went when we went to the ocean. My mother would take me along and we’d walk down to his studio.

But I first met Callahan at a retrospective he had at the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington. It was just an ordinary day, not an opening or anything and my mother and I were practically the only ones there and there was Callahan standing in the middle of one of the galleries.  My mother took me up and introduced us..  He was very dignified looking with snow white hair and very neatly trimmed beard.

Q: How old were you?

ReeL: I don’t remember, no more than 12 or 13, maybe 11.  I was thinking,, great, some woman comes up to Callahan and bothers him with an introduction to her kid, it seemed like such a stupid intrusion to me.  Then my mother tells him that I want to be a painter. Callahan looks at me and says “So young?” and to my total surprise, Callahan seems to get interested.  We get into a discussion about  painting and start going up to his paintings and discussing each one.   I’m asking how he does this and that and he tells me and then he’d ask me something, sort of a test, and I’d answer and we’d go on like that. When we get through, Callahan turns to my mother, and says to her, “Maybe he will become a painter. Maybe a pretty good one.”

Later he learned that my mother did water color and some acrylics.  So he invited her to his studio and we’d go to Long Beach once or twice a year and visit his studio.  She also went to another water-colorists studio near by, a Charles Mulvey, who did very conventional seascape watercolors much in the vein of my mother’s.  Technically proficient, but very conventional and nothing I was interested in. I also didn’t particularly like Mulvey’s studio, it was all set up for selling, while Callahan’s was a magic wonderland as far as I was concerned, full of half-done work with big swaths of color across them, in the state before he started putting in all the figurative stuff.  I liked his partially done work better than the finished work, They all started out as these relatively bold abstractions.

Carroll Dunham

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1715, Ma Jolie, acrylic on archival paper

Q: Did you see the Carroll Dunham show in LA?

ReeL: Yes.

Q: What do you think?  Both of you have had long careers moving back and forth from figuration to abstraction and back again, with a certain looseness and drawing-oriented direction to your abstraction and a clear awareness of cartoon sources in relation to your figurative work.  In the end he swerved off into a deep dive into figuration while you swerved off into abstraction and a rejection of figuration.  Both, after a relatively long time exploring the opposite direction.  You both, in  your past work were often focused on very specific things for often very long periods of time. Now you both have a very coherent focus that you both seem to be using to incorporate  new motifs into your work.

ReeL; We’re very different. But I like his new work.

Q: That’s another similarity between the two of you: you’re both very generous in your appreciation of other artists and have at times written, quite positively, about artists whose work differs quite  widely from your own.

ReeL:  I suppose so.   I can appreciate how he works, how he paints. I like a lot of artists.  He deserves his current success.  It seems to me the similarities you are reaching for are more or less happenstance, nothing to get concerned about.

Sleeping with the Dragon

Erik ReeL painting
ERik ReeL, Opus 1714, Amethyst, acrylic on archival paper

Q: What do you think of Alex Israel?

ReeL: Someone has to do that.

Q: Meaning?

ReeL: Artists like Israel, Koons, to some extent Warhol play  necessary roles, though Warhol did a lot more than what we’re talking about.  A certain scale is required to offset the other side of the coin.: the Putins, Assads, Imins, and Stalins of the world.

Previous ages did not have this.

Q: Have what?  An artist who could equal the scale of their politicians?  What about a  Rembrandt or, perhaps, more appropriately, Rubens?

ReeL: No, Not the same.  There was no one in their day, none with the means to do things on a scale equal media-wise to what a totalitarian government does, and have it  ripple out for decades.  The artists have the advantage that their work ripples out for much longer, for decades longer than any dictator, and can span beyond the single countries that dictators typically rule, but in the more circumscribed sphere of art, media and image.  On another level, its more of the pen is mightier than the sword thing, and someone has to play that role on this much larger scale.

Q: so you are saying there is a matter of historical scale?

ReeL: Yes. And I am taking into account Adorno’s famous remark, which is, at bottom about a certain sense of perspective and scale.  A rose is nothing compared to a concentration camp. You can’t violate the scale of reality and lose perspective: there are scales beyond art, but also, art is not necessarily powerless. On a more internal and personal scale, you have people surviving concentration camps because of their connection to music, a memory, and many survivors end up with special connections to art.  There is humanity underneath it all.

But still, at a cultural level there is a need to deal with things in terms of the new scale of media and a global landscape that is far beyond the scale of previous epochs.  So you need a new form of Trickster, someone to play a certain set of roles, and today, there are a lot of artists more than willing to do that, or at least attempt that. But that is not the only purpose, nor even the prime purpose of art.

Perhaps the phrase “purpose of art” should be  in quotes. One could say that art has no purpose.   That it is  useless.

Q: Do you believe that?

ReeL: No. I believe it has purpose.  But it has to do with the creation of culture and how an individual locates themselves in a meaningful way within that culture, or whatever culture they find themselves in.

When there are global and totalitarian forces at work, you need someone to work at a greater scale in order to create sufficient room, meaning freedom, for everyone else.   But you also need others to work at a sufficiently intimate scale and depth as well. Otherwise you end up playing into the totalitarian forces, which ultimately have the power to co-opt everything on that scale. That is what Totalitarianism is about, trying to control, or at least co-opt everything, at that  scale.  So you need the  Koons and Israel, the artists who run entire factories and a media machine; but you are in a very dangerous place if that is all you’ve got.

Q: I don’t know. I think you may be missing something there.

ReeL: Well yes.  Tricky territory in this context to deal with this briefly.  A lot is missing.  All I am saying here  is that you need people playing at this large scale and you also need people working at an intimate scale that is finely nuanced,  You need the freedom generated by the large scale actions and you need individuals  freely doing what they feel is meaningful in an intimate manner and helping wake that up in others. This is more where my work comes in.  It is a very intimate kind of work. It speaks to subtle and intimate places in people and helps wake up something in them that is beyond everything working at the larger scales.  You need something deeper than branding.

In the end, Koons and Israel are more about branding. The Nazis were champions of branding.  So it is probably necessary to have counter-forces there, but ultimately there is always the danger of feeding only the dragon, the dragon guarding the motherlode of treasure and wealth laying beneath it.

Q: So, I suppose, the question we need to ask is: who are the dragon-slayers?

ReeL: Yes, who are the dragon-slayers. A lot of the time I’d say these artists are doing something else.  It’s never too black and white. Even in something as old as the Beowof myth the haziness of it all is acknowledged: Beowolf warned us long ago against sleeping with the dragon, or the serpent mother.  It’s not easy to avoid. In Beowolf,  she could take on an extraordinarily beautiful appearance as well as disarm any human weapon.

Q: So you feel the  Beowolf story applies to artists like Koons and Israel.

ReeL: Oh, yea.  Without a doubt.

Q:  In Beowolf, isn’t it the offspring that ravage the rest of civilization?

ReeL: Yea,. you have to watch out for those offspring.

But the real message is: Don’t sleep with the dragon to begin with.  But not so easy. These artists are often clearly not slaying the dragon, they are sleeping with the hag, and, as in Beowolf, they come back and lie, wanting us to believe they tried to slay her.  In reality we, like Beowolf, know that she is also the undeniable temptress of wealth and supreme beauty capable of any seduction,  incapable of being slain.

The Death of Painting

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1711, acrylic on archival paper

Q: What do you say to the claim that painting is dead?

ReeL: People still wonder about that?  I won’t deny that there are a lot of dead paintings out there.  I always thought Thomas McEvilley’s The Exiles Return, Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era answered that question in 1994.   And that’s for the Post-Modern era.

After Post-Modernism, the role of painting is possibly even more significant.  So I don’t consider it a relevant issue today.

Q: What about your own work?

ReeL: Personally, that is, in terms of my work, I never considered it an issue.  There are issues interesting to me and which have always been central to my work as an artist that have to do with unique properties of two-dimensional imagery.

To fully go into it, I could talk about that for probably about eighteen hours or more. That’s a whole book in itself.  The role of mapping,  the whole thing around signs and signification, marks and marking, surface and boundedness.  It goes on and on and in many places is quite technical.  Though this whole area is core to my work and how I think about it and generate it,  I have almost never met an observer  who needed any of this to have a fulfilling and deep experience of my work, or who was even that interested in most of it, for that matter.

On another level,  I covered some of this ground in my earlier blog posts on this site:  Specifically,  there is an inherent materialism in all things three dimensional and there are unique possibilities for moving against materialism within a two-dimensional practice.  This is a core to why I do art in the first place.

America, being an extremely materialistic society, tends to be a bit deaf to these issues, but that is fine with me.  A good deal of American art, for example, spent several decades trying to make painting as three dimensional as possible and there are still people who think this way. That mentality has never been relevant to what I am trying to do, or to what I am interested in.

Color

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1709, EPI, acrylic on archival paper

Q: Do you feel you are part of some sort of artists lineage from the NorthWest School?

ReeL: Somewhat, due to my experiences as a kid, but by the time I was 15 I could render very realistically and then shifted when I took up pen and ink the next year. So I was progressing in a very different direction.

But my primary concern was with color.  I was struggling with color–frustrated no end–and this lead me to look more closely at Klee and Matisse.

Q: But then you went to the University of Washington and the courses with Tsutakawa and …..

ReeL: But that was not the main thrust of my interest.  By the time I was 16 I was troubled by  my difficulties with color.  At Washington, I lucked out on this score.

At the University of Washington back then they did something  no one dares do now: they closed off upper division art classes to all but those who passed a sophomore portfolio review.  Nowadays they’ll take anybody willing to pay tuition.  Since I was coming in as a transfer from a Mathematics major,  I  submitted a portfolio.

They waived my first two years of coursework and waived my sophomore portfolio review requirement, but the counselor suggested that there was a special session of one of the first-year design classes that I might be very interested in taking: Dick Dahn, who had been a student of Albers at Yale, converted his design class into essentially the same class as the one based on Albers’ Interaction of Color book, which had just came out .   I took it and it was a revelation and great help to me.

A couple years later, when I was studying with Rainer Crone, he introduced me to a curator who was putting on a big retrospective of Klee.  We hit it off and he had full access to the Klee Foundation archives in Bern and other Bauhaus sources.   He gave me translation transcripts of all of Klee’s  unpublished notes on color and his courses at the Bauhaus., as well as some notes by Itten on color.

I already had a copy of Klee’s published work, the Sketchbook and so forth, and Itten’s book.  I took this material and what I got from Dahn, plus the work of the Dutch color theorist Frans Gerritsen and put together my own color class which I taught for the next 11 years.

Then as I got interested in computers and realized that designers would  soon be working with color on computers, I added a section on hexidecimal representation of RGB color and so forth– this was before there was any computer software for graphic designers, it was all still “blue line” layout.

Q: What’s that? What’s blue line?

ReeL: It’s not important. As you see, no one today has a clue even what it is. It’s how you did layout before computers.  Anyway, the other instructors where I was teaching kept asking why I was doing all the RGB hex stuff, and I would say, because by the time these students get out they’ll be using computers, and they’d say, how do you know it’ll be done this way?  and I’d say, well, it’s by far the best way to do it, if you were implementing this stuff in software.

Q: Was it?

ReeL: Yes,. I turned out to be right.  And the switchover to computers came the next year, sooner than a lot of faculty expected, so a lot of my students got huge head starts over their peers. Ironically, I ended up being considered an expert on color, when it had started as a major problem for me.

Consequently,  I  feel there is more of an apostolic succession from Itten and Klee to Albers to Dahn to myself as far as formal training and background.  A very different orientation than the Northwest School.  That also turned out to be a much stronger preparation for abstract work and the kind of work I am doing now.  Then, in this century, I did end up doing a series of Technicolor Tobey’s and here I am now exhibiting at the Morris Graves Museum of Art with work that has some degree of affinity with  the Northwest School.

Q: Oh!  You answered my original question. I thought we were off on a completely unrelated tangent there.

 

Coming Full Circle

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1707, RHO, acrylic on archival paper

Q: Getting back to the Northwest School, do you feel any direct influence from those painters?

ReeL: I was very influenced by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and Kenneth Callahan as a kid growing up in Seattle.  Guy Anderson wasn’t exhibiting that much by then, though he had a lot of visibility with some public commissions like his large painting at the Opera House, which I saw when I was about 11 or 12 or so.

At one point I told my mother that I wanted to do a “technicolor Tobey” when I grew up.

Q: A technicolor Tobey?

ReeL: Yes, Technicolor films were a big then at that moment and the Northwest School — and just about everyone else painting in the Puget Sound back then–were working a lot with palettes that were as grey and dreary as Seattle’s weather: a lot of umbers, and ochres, black and white and a touch of burnt sienna. Very grey and brown. I was thinking of Tobey’s “white writing” paintings,  how fun it would be to do them, but with a full palette, in technicolor, so to speak.  My mother thought that that was hilarious.   And Graves heavily influenced how I approached painting when I was an early teenager.

Q: Aren’t you having a show at the Morris Graves Museum soon?

ReeL: Yes, it will be up March 12th and open on the first Saturday in April and run til the end of April of this year [2016] .  I am looking forward to it, coming back to the institution that has Graves’ estate, which includes two Tobeys as well as his work. It will be like coming full circle, back to my roots. And the people at the museum have been wonderful.

Jae Carlsson

w2074
Erik ReeL, Opus 2074, acrylic on paper, 2015, at the Morris Graves Museum of Art.

Q: How did Jae Carlsson change your art?

ReeL: It’s not a direct thing. Jae was not interested in “reviewing” art or anything like that. His scope was much wider. In a sense he was interested in consciousness; how humans work, how the mind works and how that leads to culture and civilization. How does all that work deep down inside and in its most nitty gritty manifestations.

This led Jae to penetrate things deeper than a lot of other people; to see things others missed; to get below surfaces.

Remember, this was all at a time when the art world, the greater art world was for the most part obsessed with surfaces, with strict formalist analysis of purely material, completely external concerns.   Even the word “consciousness” was often meant to be some sort of relatively superficial awareness  of the external manifestations of history or a shallow, materialistic realization of things.

About this time Jae and I collaborated on a zine. This was very early in the zine phase of things; when we started the word “zine” didn’t even exist yet.  I say “collaborated” but it was really me making a few minor contributions to a project that was primarily driven by Jae’s vision. He did some very experimental stuff in it, even invented entirely new systems of punctuation. Things like that.  If I remember right, it was even distributed as samidzhat behind the Iron Curtain.  It is quite sobering to realize that people are willing to risk their lives, or at the very least some severe torture, just to distribute your publication.  It definitely throws a whole new light on things.

Q: I suspect a lot of our readers may be too young to remember the Cold War and not know what  samidzhat is.

ReeL: It was underground publications and literature distributed illegally behind the Iron Curtain at great risk.

Q: What was this zine about?

ReeL: I’d say it was critical theory before Critical Theory.

Q: So, back to my question, how did he influence your art?

ReeL: Oh, what I was getting at is that Jae’s approach put an emphasis on consciousness, on how the mind works, how cognition plays a part in the creation of something, and how this becomes culture or a civilization. It was a very different approach from  say, McEvilley,  who was very much into looking at beliefs and the cultural substratums as these structures and influences that then re-generate culture over and over again.  This led McEvilley to become a tremendous esxpert on religions who could then extend this expertise to key insights in the visual art of his time. Jae’s approach seemed to me to take one toward constructs that were determined by how cognitive processes worked on very deep levels.

Q: I’m not sure I follow. How would you characterize the difference between the two?

ReeL: When I read McEvilley, I get the feeling that I am reading someone who would have been very comfortable walking around in India three thousand years ago, but he’s a totally contemporary guy at the same time. When I read Carlsson I get the feeling I am reading someone visiting us from the 22nd century, some place we haven’t quite gotten to yet, and he’s giving us a few hints about how we might go about getting there in better shape than we are now.

Probably why Jae seems to me to be so impatient with Post-Modernism; he gives the impression that he finds it quite tiresome and oddly archaic, not quite as advanced as it should be.  He seems one of the few around that seems to see clearly beyond it.

Q: So, again, how did he change your art?

ReeL: He helped me realize the extent it had to do with cognitive processing; how my mind works, not necessarily anything to do with the material surfaces of the external world, but with consciousness itself.

This was, eventually, quite freeing, and brought me to my present work.

SAW

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 2076, acrylic on paper, at the Morris Graves Museum of Art

Q: What was your involvement with the Seattle Art Writing or SAW group?

ReeL: It took a few meetings to get any direction. I remember at an early meeting the painter, Andy Keating, now working in New York, saying that writing  was like pulling teeth.  There was a strong interest in improving the quality of written discourse in and about the Seattle scene, but also a clear awareness of the difficulties involved with taking writing to that level.

This led to the awareness that the group should direct its energy toward developing and supporting any writers who wanted to take on this challenge.

We began having meetings where writing was distributed to everyone then workshopped at the next meeting. At first we met weekly, but too many people couldn’t handle that pace. Eventually only Jae and I met weekly.

Q: Did it work?

ReeL: on a couple of levels, quite well.  Within a year there were half a dozen new writers from the group writing for publications around the region and even outside the region, sometimes in publications that had never had good art writing in them before.

The thing that really made SAW work was the presence of Jae Carrlsson.  Jae was not only a great and keenly perceptive writer, but it became quickly evident that he had an extraordinary kind of editing talent.

Jae could transform someone’s entire vision of what writing could be. He certainly did that for me.   Under his guidance, I came to a completely new understanding of writing.  This ability of his is partly linked, I feel, to why he is such an engaging writer on art, of why so many like to read what he says about artists’ work. Jae has this uncanny ability to get inside of what an artist or writer is trying to do and then take it further.

And I don’t mean any succumbing to the “intentionalisst fallacy” that so much many today fall for.

Q: What do you mean by the  “intentionalist fallacy”?

ReeL: the intentionalist fallacy is the mistaken belief that what an artist or creator says his work is about or means is  what it actually is about, that what an artist says his intentions are is in fact what they are doing.

Q: But people do that all the time. We pay attention to a lot artists’ statements.

ReeL: Yes, well the intentionalist fallacy and the fallacy of assuming that an artist’s work is autobiographical, that, say when they write they are necessarily  describing their actual experience are two very commonly  committed fallacies. People create things, that doesn’t mean they have a clue as to the significance or meaning of what they create. It is a fallacy and usually a great error to take an artist at their word. Not to mention that sometimes they are consciously and deliberately misleading you anyway, for their own purposes.

What Jae tended to do was look at the internal evidence within the work,  its milieu and context and get at what was possible and then try to elucidate that or help the writer or artist see it for themselves. A lot of people’s writing and art improved immensely under the light of Jae’s observations and since that time a lot of people have come to appreciate that.

Q: Sounds like normal contextualist criticism to me.

ReeL: Yes,  but this was  at the height of the high formalism era; not many people were looking at things that way at the time.

Jae also pointed out things such as how Harold Bloom’s machinery was a possibly fruitful and  effective machinery  for looking at visual artists as it was for the late Romantic writers he applied it to.  Jae encouraged people to read “Kabbala and Criticism” and “The Anxiety of Influence.” Some curators and critics eventually came around to that view, but more than a decade later. Jae was way ahead of his time on a few things..

But the biggest thing for me was that Jae transformed how I approached my writing in a way that helped me integrate everything into a more unified thought process internally. Instead of fighting against my painting , everything began to work together.

Eventually, in the end, Jae had a huge impact on my painting as well, though he never directly sought, at least as far as I could tell, to do so.

and/or

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 2091, acrylic, 2015

Q: After you graduated from the University of Washington, you gravitated toward the and/or alternative space and did something there with their publications?

ReeL: It was close to where I lived and I could walk over there and use their library. I began helping out with their mailings,  but eventually ended up re-designing their calendar and their mailing publication, the and/or Notes. I even attended their staff meetings for a couple of years, though I was never on staff. Just helping out. It was a great group of people.

Q: But didn’t the Notes start publishing art criticism under your direction?

ReeL: Yes. There was  a natural evolution. The entire and/or staff was interested in getting better art writing injected into the scene, and there was a small community, most of whom had met each other at and/or events or in its library  who had problems with the level of published art discourse in Seattle at the time.  The critic at the main daily paper was terrible, but there were two critics already working who had potential, but were often constrained by their editors. Someone had to help open things up.

One of the people who was a driver for some new momentum, but not directly connected to and/or was the writer, Jae Carlsson, who I first met in the and/or library.

So the first thing the and/or staff did  was allow more discursive writing into the Notes itself. We were trying to promote a forum for developing alternative voices as well as the art exhibited.

Soon after this and/or invited Peter Frank and Edit Deak out to do a workshop on art criticism. Frank was running a publishing project in Chicago at the time that was getting a lot of attention, and Deak was at Art Forum and had just published the first piece in America on Francesco Clemente.  Deak later moved on to Vanity Fair and drifted out of art writing altogether.

It was a great workshop, Jae and myself and the and/or staff wanted to continue the momentum from the workshop. That led to the founding of the Seattle Art Writing or SAW group.

Not Quite Boolean

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1706, Love Is All There Is, acrylic on archival paper

Q: OK. I’m still reeling a bit from what you just said about Walter Benjamin and machines.  For one thing, I had to go and take a look on your website at a lot of your art again.  I saw entirely new things in your painting now than before.   I had no idea the non-pattern thing was so important.  I’m thinking about your work entirely differently than before.

This leads me to a question I am not sure that I know how to ask.  How do you know for sure?  I mean how do you know a machine could not do what you do?

ReeL: A machine may still be able to mimic my work superficially, but I suspect there will still be a way to tell the difference.  No matter what, machines are still limited to algorithms.  That is a very specific and interesting limitation.

Q: OK, I have to admit I do not know much about algorithms, or even what they are, really.  What is important here?

ReeL: Fair. We now know there are subtleties, and unexpected nuance.  I’ll try to illustrate with a simpler problem: The problem of generating a random sequence.  Technically, an algorithm cannot generate a random sequence.

Q: Why not?

ReeL: Almost by definition. If it did, the sequence would not be truly random.  It would have a pattern, the pattern imposed by the algorithm.  So as far as algorithms go, patterns are key. This is why my previous statements emphasized patterns and my requirement to paint free of algorithmic reproduction.

Q: So if no algorithm, no machine?

ReeL: No, not quite. The case of machines is  more complex than the problem of agorithmic generation of random sequences. A machine can get a random sequence in other ways, for example, by detecting and recording a natural process that is known to be random, like the decay of an appropriate  radio-isotope.  You see, machines can detect and record, as well as calculate.  This is part of their power to mimic. Machine mimicry goes beyond calculation, but generation is still limited to the realm of algorithms.

This is in part why Turing did not see the whole implications of artificial intelligence as we know it today. Turing was primarily interested in algorithms, calculation, and the kind of problems a very fast calculator could tackle, and the problems associated with constructing instruction sets, or what we today call “code” to direct those calculations.  Turing did seem to have seen the possibility  of the code itself being generated by a machine. So in that sense,  he saw a crucial piece of the current situation.

Q: So the machine, since it can do things other than calculate, adds more complexity to the problem and Artificial Intelligence uses this full complexity and greater potential of the machine.

ReeL; Yes, essentially. The trans-algorithmic realm of machines adds  new wrinkles.

Q: Are there other artists dealing with these issues?

ReeL: On one level, yes, all the time. For example, as far as the limitations of algorithms, this is an area that a lot of today’s musicians have more awareness of in terms of the arts.  They may not think of it in the way I talk about it, but they experience its consequences all the time.  For example, we still have music machines that use live recordings of real musical instruments as a basis for their synthesized sounds: it still is often better to  digitize real phenomena, that is, detect and record, than to generate, that is, calculate  from scratch algorithmically.

Ask a good music engineer about generating really good sounding synthetic percussion tracks.  A  lot of times they’ll manually alter the track just off the beat or the strict algorithm to make it sound more natural. There’s a whole art to it. In this case, people go out of their way to preserve the human mind behind the machine.

Q: Apart from all this, didn’t someone named Boole cover a lot of this much earlier? Hasn’t some of this stuff been around a long time? Since the nineteenth century?

ReeL: Yes, he basically invented Boolean algebra, or what he called the “mathematics of thought”.  And Boole was aware of machines, such as Jaquard looms, that could work with instruction sets. Ironically, Boolean algebra,  turned out in one sense to be far more important mathematically than he dreamed–it’s fundamental to understanding what is called Universal Algebra, that is, most other algebras at a certain  abstract level–while as far as machines and electronics go, it turns out it is not quite as all-encompassing as he thought. Originally, it was thought that Boolean algebra could at least  represent all electronic circuits.  It turns out that is not so. There are relatively simple recursive circuits that cannot be represented by Boolean algebra, yet are relatively easy to construct physically.  This was not discovered until much later, long after Boole.  And recursivity is a big part of modern programming and Artificial Intelligence.

Beyond Benjamin

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1705, Get Off, acrylic on archival paper

Q: Do you, then. consider your work Modernist or Post-Modernist?

ReeL: Neither. No, it is quite different. Maybe not so easy to get at in an interview,  I have many more disagreements with Modernism than those we just alluded to.  Yet, Post-Modernism is tainted by other conceits that have been cleaned out of my work.

Q: Such as?

ReeL: Besides my war on its referentiality, on a more mundane level, there are a lot of patterns in Post-Modernist paintings. Notice that there are no patterns in my work. More significantly, it explicitly cannot be produced by a machine, an artifical intelligence, or any mechanism that depends on algorithms. It is fundamentally of the human hand.

Yet, it’s psychological, it deals, in part, with cognitive processing., with what underlies our mind workings.  It is pre-linguistic, if you will.

Q: I’m not sure I follow.  Couldn’t this be considered another sub-cultural approach within a Post-Modernist outlook?  Post-Modernism is devilishly broad and amorphous  in its  definition.

ReeL: I feel there is a profound and important difference in orientation.  I seek the un-machine-like. Imagery that is without pattern. This drive to differentiate from an artificial intelligence is so far outside of the questions sought after by either  Modernism or Post-Modernism that it isn’t  even on their maps. The future will demonstrate how crucial this distinction is and will be for the future of human culture.

Q: OK, so you are asking different questions. Which questions?

ReeL: I am interested in a profoundly different set of questions than either Modernism or Post-Modernism.  I am  interested in the non-machineness of art, what distinguishes us from machines. Now that we are more cybernetically aware, it turns out to not be so easy to do or see this.

Q: Why is this important?

ReeL:  Soon we will have Artificial Intelligences that will be able to mimic most of what we now call “art”.   For this reason, art, human art, is in a very real and important sense, not what anyone  says it is.   This is the Achilles heel of Post-Modernism that .Artificial Intelligence reveals,  once one more  fully understands its implications.    Machines can, and will, create much of what we now call “art”.   At some point, artificial intelligences  will call all this into question.

I also feel that these questions will be profoundly more important in the near future than they are today. For culture, for all humanity.

Q: Well this certainly puts a different spin on Walter Benjamin.

ReeL: I recently reread a lot of Benjamin’s essays. When I was studying with Rainer Crone in school we read a lot of the Frankfurt School.  This time around it seemed like a blast from a deep past. His thought now feels so old-fashioned, obsolete. True for much of what still goes on, but not for what I am looking for.

Q: Doesn’t Benjamin account for all of this? for what you are talking about?

ReeL:  No. Benjamin is responding to and critiquing an age for its inadequate understanding of machines; but for all that, he naturally assumes that there is still a human mind behind the machine.  It does not occur to him that the mind behind the machines may be itself a machine.

This was only natural; he couldn’t have done otherwise. Remember, Benjamin was writing before Turing.

Even Turing did not fully see what the future of electronics would bring, their ability to mimic, for example. He, up to the end, always characterized his machines as “calculating” machines, with very specific, mathematical, boundaries on what calculation meant, and the machines he worked with were, by today’s standards, quite primitive.

Internality

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1704, Stone, acrylic on paper

Q: So are you saying your work is primarily internal in some way?  As not depending on something external to itself, that it specifically denies referentiality?

ReeL:  My  work is built on what I call “psychic resonances”, like music, the marks and colors resonate with innate internal, psychic, aspects of human cognitive processing.

Q: I’m not sure I follow, Can’t a viewer bring in their own cultural references and personal associations?

ReeL: Yes, of course, that cannot be prevented. One of the fallacies of Modernist theory was that it thought such a clinical purity was possible.  This fallacy persists into late Twentieth century Minimalism and Conceptualism as well. One of the corrections of Post-Modernism was a greater awareness of how thoroughly we cannot escape our cultural screens and that we live in a culturally multi-valent world.  This was a very important and badly needed correction.

However,  the fallacy persists.  Unfortunately, Post-Modernism does not eliminate it, it mutates it into  something more easily overlooked, harder to get at.  Originally the Post-Modernist machinery of multi-culturalism was intended to end things like racism and, correctly, liberate us from a mono-culturally defined and linear history.

Q: And hasn’t it?

ReeL: Yes and no. The Sleep of Reason breeds Monsters.  Ironically we live in a Post-Modernist world full of race wars, genocide, and deadly divisive politics.  This is the dark side of Post-Modernism. It seems to have, in the end, at the grand scale, only magnified the cultural conflicts.

Q; So the monster bred by the reason of Post-Modernism is ….?

ReeL: It’s flip side: A retrenchment search for  identity. Then locking on, trying to preserve, seemingly and all too often at all costs, to that cultural identity, that identity that is supposed to moor us in our great multi-cultural sea, which, additionally,  dangerously locks us into a  too-narrowly defined cultural identity at odds, or worse, at war with all else around us.

Q: So you see this as the flip side of Post-Modernism?

ReeL: Yes, just as Fascism is, in an interesting way, the flip side, the dark side, of Modernism. Something that was explicit in the thought and writings of the Futurists, and, others, such as the later Ezra Pound.