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

Early in January 2016, I did an extended interview online with a collector who was familiar with my work, a selection from the transcript of which is posted here in the Interview category. Except for this first post, the posts are listed in reverse order due to the nature of how blogs post 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]

Contemporary Abstraction

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1925 Rebar 9, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 48 inches

Sullivan Goss : An American Gallery exhibits Erik ReeL’s Rebar 9,  featured  Continue reading “Contemporary Abstraction”

The Pulse of Life

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL studio, canvas stretched on wall

After all the events of the last few weeks, it now feels like months ago when I was listening to the horrific events that unfolded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, not able to get the images out of my mind.

Especially one young man’s description of his ordeal, hiding in a bathroom stall with 17 [seventeen!!] other people, all wounded, all slowly bleeding to death as they waited over two and a half hours for help [two and a half hours!].  The shooter came around and shot into the stall, but remarkably, never entered it.

The young man said he couldn’t get the smell of the blood out of his mind.  He shot video from inside the stall and sent to friends so that they would know that they were all alive and give some clues to any potential rescuers.  Why did they have to wait almost THREE HOURS for help? Only five made it out alive.  Just heart-rending. Horrible. Horrible.

Continue reading “The Pulse of Life”

Early Drawings

Erik ReeL early drawing
Drawing of John Coltrane by Erik ReeL age 15, pencil on paper, 1967

Continue reading “Early Drawings”

Beauty is a form of knowledge

Reel in studio
Erik ReeL in studio, photo: Jonas Lara

A man shoots fashion in the street.  He looks for something the fashion houses haven’t seen yet. He becomes famous. Late in his life he is invited to speak. He says:

“Beauty is a form of knowledge. If you seek beauty, you will find it.”

After the excesses of the 18th century, many would claim that beauty was a superficial pursuit.  But I say:

Just because someone has a superficial idea of beauty does not mean beauty is superficial.

Because that photographer is right. Beauty is a form of knowledge.

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?”


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”




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”

Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe

Oxnard-born Henry Taylor’s current solo show takes up the first floor of the Blum & Poe space in Culver City, Los Angeles. Best known for his large, thickly-painted, emotionally-charged paintings, often modeled on photographs, but not photorealism in any sense of the word, Taylor in this exhibition also extends  Continue reading “Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe”

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”


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”

Reformation and Truth

Erik ReeL and Kathy Rae Huffman
Kathy Rae Huffman, independent curator, and Erik ReeL converse at Villa Aurora, Los Angeles,  November, 2016

Published in conjunction with the exhibition of Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] running until 26 May 2017.

Blame it on the Germans [or thank them profusely].  As Andreas Görgen reminded a quiet audience at the Villa Aurora–which among other things houses residencies for German artists in Los Angeles and serves as an embassy for German-American cultural relations–the Reformation created three ideas that are still playing out in our world today with great force and energy:   Continue reading “Reformation and Truth”


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”


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”


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.

Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt, author of The Human Condition

I recently read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition [University of Chicago Press, 1958].  I’ve only been wanting to read this book for about 40 years, finally a short while ago a copy fell into my hands and I said, OK, it’s about time to actually read it.

It’s a quite idiosyncratic, extraordinary, and fascinating book. No other  book  Continue reading “Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition”

The End of Culture

Erik ReeL blog
Mario Vargas Llosa, author of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, 2012

As Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society subtitle suggests, Llosa owes a bit to Guy Debord.  No one would even think of using such a subtitle before Gallimard published Debord’s seminal The Society of the Spectacle in 1967.

But Llosa’s heart lies closer to T. S. Eliot’s much earlier, far more conservative, nay, now considered almost reactionary, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture.  Llosa is definitely not a Marxist or proto-Marxist. Though his analysis may echo some of Debord’s most widely accepted notions, Llosa’s conclusions are for the most part almost in complete opposition to Debord’s.

After a few introductory pages re-setting  the stage in the context of T.S. Eliot’s definition of culture and George Steiner’s response ten years later, LLosa starts with Foucault and Debord and traces the, what he would call, slide into the Post-Modernist attack on not only the previous notions of what culture is, but to the annihilation of the role of culture and intellectual life in our modern world and our entry into an age that is truly without culture. Llosa wants to reverse this.  His crusade and argument would be more convincing if he wouldn’t sound like such an old stuck-in-the-mud reactionary when he gets down to details, the danger here being that slippery slope into the whining of those who are left behind in the dust.

At any rate, it’s still an interesting and easy read and a primary contemporary text on this subject in the Spanish-speaking world and the Americas. In the context of recent political events in the English-speaking world, it now looms with a new-found sense of relevance.

For me to truly respond to my reading of this book, it would require a book in itself as I would have to challenge most of the assumptions made in almost every other paragraph with a level of detail capable of penetrating Llosa’s numerous hidden assumptions.  I feel Llosa only gets part of the picture, misses some very critical aspects of the current cultural situation, and has a tendency to load his argument with semi-hidden assumptions that would not hold up under tighter scrutiny.

One thing I like about Llosa is that unlike many of his sources, who tend to be overwhelmingly interested in texts and words, Llosa is definitely interested in and discusses, albeit a bit too narrowly, the visual arts. Ironically, after all, one of the key characteristics of the Society of the Spectacle is the emerging dominance of images over texts, of the visceral over the literary, and the psychological power of the subtext over the text itself; not to mention the predominance of  media, with its highly mediated messages, over simpler written and traditional arts.

Another Early Drawing

Erik ReeL early drawing
Drawing of Miles Davis, by Erik ReeL, age 15, pencil on paper, 1967.

In my previous post I talked about  going to the library when I was a kid to get good LPs  and then drawing from the photos on them.

One of my favorite musicians when I was a teenager was Miles Davis.  When I was looking for a photo to draw him  I remember it was a bit difficult to get a good enough photo at that time without a horn in his mouth. I did some drawings of him playing, but I also wanted one without a horn in his mouth and finally found a very early photo of him.

Miles is young in the picture, it’s off of one of his earliest albums and I was very young when I drew this pencil sketch. It was  the summer before I entered ninth grade: I was 15.

The original sketch is quite small: only a couple of inches across.

Early Drawing

Erik ReeL drawing
Drawing of Shostikovich, by Erik ReeL at age 14, pencil on paper, 1966

When I was a kid, my one great refuge was the  public library. In those days it had two floors, the first floor was for kids, the second for adults.

I tried desperately to get check-out rights to the adult section when I was in elementary school, but to no avail:  the librarians reneged on every agreement [like reading all the books on a given topic in the young adults section and I’d get access, which I did, but still no access …].

This taught me very early on  one very important  non-intended consequence: that for a lot of adults, including, and especially those in power, their word meant nothing and that  they were not to be trusted.

Finally I turned 12 and could get a full library card. One thing I had not anticipated is that the adult section had a great music section containing Classical LPS, and even more difficult to get otherwise in my neighborhood, a full range of jazz LPs: all of Miles Davis, even Ornette Coleman.  I was in heaven and pretty much  checking out LPs at my max quota on an ongoing basis.

One of the things a lot of these LPs had were photos of the musicians, composers, and conductors on their back covers and sleeve inserts. So I started drawing from these LPs. My primary tools were a black pencil, a pink pearl eraser, and paper, sometimes I used colored crayola crayon. From about 5th grade to 7th grade I  developed a certain naturalistic  approach to drawing that culminated in  the drawing style you see here in an example from the summer before I entered 8th grade. I was 14.

I’ll post a couple of drawings from the next summer in my next post.  Without the intrusion of school, summers allowed me much more time to draw, so most of my drawing during these years was done during the summer.  Ah, the life-long battle to obtain time and space to create my own work.  I do not remember a time or age I did not feel that all else was an imposition and a hindrance to what I felt I was supposed to be doing.


Open Studio

Erik ReeL studio
Laurie Kirby, founder of Fest Forward, at Erik ReeL studio. John Lacques and Noah Thomas in background. photo: Rhonda P. Hill.

So much fun. Just had my Summer Open Studio with John Lacques [percussion] and Noah Thomas [horn] playing free-form jazz.  What a blast.

These guys can really play.  Noah can channel Miles on a conch shell. Where else are you going to hear that?

Improvisational music, improvisational painting.  A room full of great people grooving it.

At left you can see Laurie Kirby, founder of Fest Forward, channeling Antonioni’s cinematography.  She’s not really a movie star, just one of the most kick ass experts on how to run a major music festival on the planet.  ’nuff said.  See y’all next time.

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.

Making Things

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Urban Forest, opus 1722, acrylic on paper, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbra

Q:  Frank Stella once said that when he started he just wanted to make things, it was only later that he realized he was making something people called art.

ReeL: Yea, right.  Wonder what he thought Joseph Stella was doing.

For myself, I was never interested in making things. I wasn’t interested as a kid, in school or anytime after.  I was always intrigued by our ability to read a flat surface, to construct meanings from what was on it, to see a flat surface  in a very non-thing-like way.

Materialists and highly materialistic cultures are enthralled by things and making things.  The world is too full of things already.

A painting’s status as an object is NOT the most important aspect of a painting –at least a painting that is any good, that is.  The most important aspect of a painting is whether it has significant meaning. The most important aspects of painting are quite independent of its status as an object, and in many cases are involved with how significantly  it is non-object-like.

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.