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”

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.


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.

New Beginnings

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1699, Beginning, acrylic on paper

I did this  painting, titled Beginning New Time, right after meeting Rhonda Hill, my wonderful wife.  We met in a gallery one afternoon, talked for a bit, then went our ways after arranging to meet later early that evening at a friend’s bar for a light dinner.

Neither of us can remember what was said exactly in that first conversation, but we were both intrigued.  Proof, once again, that it is the feeling and character that matters, not the exact words.   It was the beginning of the most remarkable relationship of my life; a relationship that has more than fulfilled all the promise of those first magic moments.


Letter From the Front

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1697, acrylic

Letter from a painting,

Come to me with your freedom. I am a sanctuary where we meet, you and I, and go together to find another. Drop the burdens of the day-to-day world, that prison full of delusions, that material world that dulls and engulfs us.  I refuse to build walls for that prison.

Tyrannized by photographs, we forget the camera does not see what we see. Why be so literal? Today triflers talk of realism and what a shabby “reality” it is! As if a machine knew our secrets. What does an object know of a dream? a caress? the soft whispering in the night?

it is not enough to be pretty and decorate people’s lives. I am here to keep you from being crushed by life. I celebrate the remaining ruins of time, feelings left in place after death. I am a surface catching the reflections of all that has passed by, the debris of a vision, a graphic cypher of a ghost, a final testament to mortality, thrown against walls, shattered against time, the confines of an artist’s touch, laying bare in the light, bearing witness to my Fall to those who come after.

Color in My Painting

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1695, acrylic 

Color is central to my painting, including the deeper foundations and interactions that lead to structural coherence, a construct  somewhat influenced by the raga systems of the Indian subcontinent which link color combinations in painting to specific harmonic structures in music are tied to a mood, time of day.  These are somewhat analogous to the Western concept of a musical mode, except that distinctly different ascending and descending scales are recognized within the same rag.

I’m not sure there is such a direct link between painting and music, but certainly a somewhat analogous structuring is possible, something musical, as a structuring principle.

After 2008, my ideas on chromatic structure have moved toward something closer to Stockhausen’s vocabulary of harmonics where fundamentals set the shifting harmonic content for an extended improvisation. Increasingly this has morphed into the use of small clusters of chromatic “notes”, or signs, to produce shifting chromatic relationships, much the way harmonic relationships shift within a complex rhythmic structure as in the music of Kamran Ince and other younger composers.

In broader terms, these approaches are not unlike the use of shifting harmonic structures in a free improvisation of flamenco by, say, Paco Pena, or the modal improvisations of Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. Similarly, I conceive of painting as a free improvisation in the moment, suiting my mood, but conducted within a precise, deeply studied and rigorous set of chromatic relationships that are known beforehand. I call these sets of relationships chromatic modes: each mode being made up of one or more color clusters or “scales” [though of course the analogy fails when one tries to impose progression and resolution or any other attribute dependent on time], or, as I prefer to say, fundamentals [this is where Stocckhausen’s ideas come in].  That is, these clusters or fundamentals may be further tempered, or fine-tuned, by nuanced additions of other pigments to create the final mode of the painting.

These chromatic structures are inherently abstract, and personal, though, as in Indian rags or Western musical modes, they tend to suggest a certain range of moods and situation.  On top of these chromatic structures I superimpose and ground them with signs reduced to iconic form, to the point where they often can be read in more than one sense..  A multiple visual trope if you will, or as the Max Ernst would say, a multivalent sign. Or deny sense altogether.


Painting is a Reminder

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1694, acrylic

We paint so that culture can dream; for without that, civilization is unworthy of humanity, let alone the angels ….

Sometimes I am lost, but I know a flower’s perfume as I lay on the beach.

Painting is a bridge between worlds, a reminder, a pointer, a sign, a messenger, a call, a shadow, a hint, a promise, an echo, a scent of something beyond our everyday senses.

Even the great Aristotle, founder of the mimetic theory of art, a sorry misinterpretation of which is claimed as the basis of all realist styles,  said that it is a poor artist indeed who can merely copy nature.

My canvases dream and dream again, follow the rivers of their desires, their loss, their arrogance, their loves, their disasters. Mountains sing while horses weep; who knows their secrets?

What is wealth without a soul? Painting is here to remind us where to look, how to look, how to move between seen and unseen, move without time, A painting plays out its ambitions on a surface, collapsing down into the limits of materiality, to two dimensions [any further and it would be no more than a straight line].  In silence lies painting’s strength.

In the Words of Picasso

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1693, acrylic on archival paper

Picasso, like Einstein and Gandhi, has the misfortune, or good fortune depending on your point of view, that people attribute numerous quotes to him that they don’t want to take credit for themselves. This is ostensibly in order to give the thought or quote more significance or weight than it might otherwise have.


In the case of Picasso, many of these quotes embody thoughts and beliefs that do not correspond to anything Picasso actually said or wrote, Worse, they often use  language or terms Picasso specifically did not like.  [Let’s remember that Picasso  wrote a considerable amount –he is even considered by some to be one of Spain’s greatest post-War writers],

One of the pecularities of this is that there are a great number of quotes attributed to Picasso floating around that mention or imply a belief in God,  a word Picasso refused to use, except in a manner that a true believer would not appreciate. Picasso  was after all, famously, an atheist.

However, he said a lot of interesting things, particularly about painting.  Here is a sample of Picasso quotes on painting:

“Everything is done for the moment and my own state of mind, and this is difficult to describe.  When I did Guernica it was a terrible time, but that is the way it was. Painting is so personal, a kind of autobiography one writes for oneself.”

“My misfortune–and my greatest happiness– is to be dominated by what I love. Everything I love goes into my paintings. Too bad if nothing goes together.”


“Down with style. It is the moment that is important.”


“It could be a step forward to realize that the rational picture of the world is also imagination; it has the same reality as a myth; it is a product of the mind; it si not more substantial than the mind.”


“I think the rational mind is a form of imagination. The weak point of the rational mind is not to think of itself as a form of imagination. The artist’s job is to bring back the consciousness that nothing is really necessary and that substantial things … are not any more necessary than imaginary things. They are just more substantial.”

“Not all societies have given such an importance to substantial things. Everything is real and everything changes. This is the basic idea, there are some things that are more substantial than others, but all things are real to the same degree. An artist is dealing with imagination and is dealing with things we think are not as real as gunshots, but they are as real as gunshots, and do have effects much as gunshots have.”


In the Studio

Erik ReeL in studio
Erik ReeL in his studio.  Photo courtesy Jonas Lara 2015

Jonas Lara, Nash Rightmer, and Erik ReeL in Erik ReeL’s studio, August, 2015.

Contra Determinism

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL Opus 1992 Guardians of the Gate,  acrylic on paper 30 x 22 inches, 2015

I don’t paint in a determined manner. I want to surprise myself.

Ah, the Yellow Green

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1692, acrylic on paper

I hope on your screen you can see the yellow green markings in the lower center and to the left. They are necessary for the whole color effect and sense of this painting.  I realize it is always a risk posting work that is this nuanced  up into the 72 dpi world.

All the more reason to see it live.


Opus 1690

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1690, acrylic on paper

One of my most complex works at this size.  I had reservations regarding posting it online as it has many layers and a subtlety that is not possible to see at 72 dpi.

Morning Light

Erik ReeL, Opus 1685, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 12 “

This painting has been hanging in my bedroom for over three years, so that I can wake up to it in morning light.  Graphite and pastels in raw titanium white acrylic.  Live, it almost looks like an oil, except the ghost-like aspects of the pastel pigments in the more highly transparent acrylic medium would not quite work in oil, unless perhaps you were using a lot of alumina hydrate pigment in oil to get a much higher transparency without losing paint viscosity.


Seeing is Believing

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1681, acrylic on paper

Once someone sees  opus 1681, they are more likely to understand why many of my pieces can only be truly seen live. No digital manipulation or camera can capture the special nature of this piece, because its perceptual situation is intrinsically caught up in the nature of the cognitive processing necessitated by our two-eyed visual apparatus. You simply see things that are not there, or, more accurately,  invisible to a single-lensed  camera.

Sapien ex Machina

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1679, acrylic on paper

In the recent film Ex Machina Jackson Pollack’s concept of automatic painting is mentioned in conjunction with testing whether an Artificial Intelligence is displaying programmed behaviour or  willfully conscious behavior. It’s a subtly complex issue, both for AI and art.

The programmers in the movie also make the astute point that if Jackson Pollack had to be rationally aware of each action, its meaning, and its significance, it would probably have been impossible for him to make a single mark. Rational awareness, and rationality, has its own built-in limitations.


It is virtually impossible for a machine to create a truly random sequence, because its activity has to be programmed, that is, determined by something, or constructed via something that cannot be random called computer code.. Mathematicians have shown that even the so-called “random number generators” of computers are precisely not random.

In that case one has to exploit data from certain phenomena which exhibit specific tendencies to chaotic behaviour under certain conditions.  In this way, a machine might be made to generate what seems to be random-like sequences.  This turns out to be far more difficult than it would appear at first glance.

It is also very difficult for a human to make something that is not willful.  Certain states have to be attained or cultivated that permit more freely unmotivated behaviour or actions.  There is an interesting gray area or set of fringe situations where things seem to be somewhat random, but aren’t, but are completely program-free, even rational-free. It is this area that has become increasingly interesting as the search for AI continues and our exploration of the problem of human consciousness continues as we gain deeper insight into human consciousness, both ontologically and epistemologically, and the human mind’s awareness evolves of what, specifically, makes it a human mind.

This is precisely the territory that my painting explores.  I further constrict the limitations on randomness by consciously outlawing some of Pollacks devices, such as flung paint. Every mark is made via a deliberate action of the human hand, my hand, so that human intention is inherently involved. But all traces of rational structure and “programmed” process are also eliminated.

This is one reason I’ve never been much interested with what many have come up with in terms of mathematically or geometrically determined art. To me, such art is  exploring the very territory that is most irrelevant to  our future understanding of human, and on the converse side, artificial, intelligence.  If it is mathematically determined structure, then the problems above are solved, known, and relatively straightforward. It is in the cases where no mathematical or geometrically generated structure manifests that the demarcations and issues of human, or non-human intelligence get really interesting.

Painting and Thought for the Day

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1678, acrylic on archival paper, 30 x 22,


Erik ReeL, Opus 1678, acrylic on archival paper, 30 x 22,

Art may be many things, but sometimes it is simply a reminder preserving a better frame of mind,  an alternative, a weapon on the side of everyday folks in their daily fight against drudgery, despair, despotism, disenfranchisement, and death. The five Ds.







Works on Paper

Erik ReeL painting #1677
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus1677

The great thing about works on paper like this is that they are easy and relatively inexpensive to ship to anywhere in the world.  Since they are on unsized or lightly sized printmaking papers, they roll easily and flatten out again easily, so they can be safely shipped in a tube.

The other thing about this work is that if someone likes a piece in digital view, they’ll love it live.  So it is easy to make a decision on the internet and order an original painting without waiting to see it in a gallery or museum [besides you   usually can’t buy the pieces showing in a museum anyway].

If you are interested in something you see here or in the Art page archives, drop me a line via my FaceBook page or profile [Erik Reel for profile; Erik ReeL for page] and I’ll give you an email box to communicate with me. I no longer post my email urls directly on this site because they get bombed if I do and makes the email box unusable.  Sorry.   Most of my works on paper are  $3,000 US [see pricing page for more information}

Study in Blue, Green minor, Opus 1675

Study in Blue, Green minor, opus 1674

Erik ReeL painting #1675
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1675

The Key of Dark Green

Erik ReeL painting #1674
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1674

Symphony in dark green.


Erik ReeL painting #1671
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1673

Blues, a la Miles.

Painting for the Day

Erik ReeL painting #1671
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1671

An acrylic on paper for the day. Enjoy.

Something Different

Erik ReeL painting #1670
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1670

This painting, Opus 1670, is unique for me, done on a sheet of smaller and very fragile paper that allowed a slightly different working surface with its own unique possibilities. In spite of its lightness it has a certain weightiness and vigor that belie its fragile substrate.

The Third of May

Erik ReeL painting #1668
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1668

The Third of May, a famous date for the history of painting.  Here’s my Opus 1668,   a more positive and ecstatic tribute to the human spirit for today, even though we  may live in times no less dark than Goya’s.


Bearable Lightness of Being

Erik ReeL painting #1667
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1667

Also on lighter, thinner, more fragile paper than usual. This paper inspires a lightness and openness to the work, and is capable of very subtle coloring, hardly given justice by the digital gods.

Something for Spring

Erik ReeL painting #1666
Erik ReeL, acrylic, Opus 1666

Something for you for Spring.  Spring without Spring colors.  Think of pollen impregnating the world.

Also on thinner, smaller, more fragile paper than usual.

Exuberant Energies at Work

Erik ReeL  painting #1665
Erik ReeL acrylic, Opus 1665

In Opus 1665, I am using a paper I usually don’t paint on. Its very lightweight,  less than 130 Kg/m2 and does not take the same degree of textural effects as what I usually work on.  In some ways this makes things clearer. Exuberant energies at work here. Enjoy.


Morris Graves Museum Show

Erik ReeL painting #1664
Erik ReeL, acrylic, opus 1664

This came out of a continuation of the working sessions that created 1660-1663.  Even though I am posting this one on the web, it really has to be seen live, especially for the dark blue marks and background areas, to get the overall real impact of the work.

By the way,  I will be showing at the Morris Graves Museum in Humboldt county in 2016 [dates not set yet].

Opus 1663

Erik ReeL painting, # 1663
Erik ReeL, acrylic, opus 1663

You can see that I was on quite a roll from opus 1660 to 1663.  Since the general process per painting takes at least about 5 days due to drying and setting times of the paint,  I tend to work on several, up to a dozen, at a time, .

Ironically, I tend to do an oil painting in less time than a similarly-sized acrylic, partly because I use a lot more layers in the acrylics as I exploit the substantially greater transparency of the polymer medium.

All papers are not created equal

Erik ReeL, painting, #1662
Erik ReeL, acrylic on paper, opus 1662

The Opus number refers to my current studio log, which was started at the end of 1999. So opus 1662 means that this is the 1,662nd work I’ve done since the beginning of 2000.

This painting is on 30 x 22 inch [75 x 55 cm] archival printmaking paper. I am using liquid acrylic paint, pastels and pencils and charcoal and a lot of acrylic medium as well as paint.  The papers I use the most are Magnani Pescia  [crown watermark grade] and Italia,  Rives BFK, Lana Royale, Rives de Lin, DS Lenox,  and Fabriano Artistico hot press which is the only watercolor paper I typically use.  Magnani Pescia, crown watermark, is by far my most favorite paper.

Unfortunately, this paper seems to be no longer available in the United States. There are people in the USA who say they are selling it, but they are not selling the watermark grade, which is the best grade and the grade I use. It seems that the people in American who order this paper cannot tell the difference between the lower grades and the crown  watermark [or top grade] paper, so the mills and suppliers ship them the lower quality stuff, charge them the same price as the crown watermark paper and they, in turn try to fob this stuff onto us, the artists, and charge the higher price as well. There are seven versions of Magnani Pescia. This follows a longstanding, but growing trend in the USA of art suppliers substituting lower quality items for long-available quality items.

Fortunately, in some cases,  there are conscientious, usually smaller, more specialized, suppliers entering into the game who either have started producing their own art supplies  here in America, or still try to get the original, quality merchandise. If you are an artist, I encourage you to seek out and support these suppliers, especially if they are local. On the other side of things, some of the best supplies can only be obtained from their source in fairly large quantities: quality stretcher bars from China, art paper from Italy, etc., usually can only be ordered in quantities of at least a shipping container or railroad car at a time.  You’d think with globalization, it’d get easier to obtain internationally produced items, not more difficult.

Opus 1661, Into the Darkness

Erik ReeL painting, #1661
Erik ReeL, opus 1661, acrylic on paper

My acrylic on paper paintings are almost like a visual diary. It is in these works that I work out my ideas on an ongoing, almost daily, basis, before going into the larger works on canvas.

I have a general process that takes  at least 5 days, depending on drying time and the number of layers I use in a piece.  There can be as many as 30 layers to the paint, once in a while more.

I work with liquid acrylics and a lot of medium. It is like working with liquid color . I like a lot of transparency in the paint so the light penetrates deep down into the paint, enriching the colors.  Similar to when you polish wood  and it brings out the grain and depth of the wood.

Opus 1661 is a particularly deeply layered piece, almost impossible to reproduce accurately digitally. But it stil looks good.

Unlike the live image perceived by two eyes, each seeing a slightly different retinal scan and then processed in the brain, and thus extremely sensitive to depth, whether something is scratched in or scumbled on top,  and enhanced by our memory as we move into and away from the image obtaining new visual information regarding surface, color, and process, a digital image is created via a single lens, set a specific distance from the painting, and then takes all data and reduces it to a single number, without any consideration for layers underneath.  Thus a digital map of the painting is significantly reduced from what our brain processes during a live encounter with the image. Bottom line: if you like the digital image of these pieces, you’ll love the  work live.

Picasso, again

F4Picasso again:

“Painting is not intended for decorating apartments … it is an offensive weapon of war and a defensive one against the enemy.”

[from Daix, Picasso]

Picasso, like Einstein and Gandhi, gets a lot of quotes attributed to him that are not his. But this one, captured in similar form in more than one instance and published by two people who were very close to Picasso [Daix, and Francoise Gilot] is certainly authentic.

People who want to give more heft to something they want to say, rather than claim it themselves, like to attribute what they are saying to one of these three, even if the quote has no relationship, or is even contrary, to the ideas and beliefs of these three giants.

Particularly peculiar are the quotes attributed to Picasso which discuss some aspect of art in terms of God, or mention the word “God”. It is well known that Picasso never used the term “God” and was at best agnostic.  He did make some comments that are extremely antagonistic to any religious sentiment or  belief in God. He also produced some art that amounted to a scathing critique of the Church and religious belief.


Erik ReeL, 1873
Erik ReeL, opus 1873


Today, 8 March, is  the birthdate of the great American composer, Alan Hovaness.  Hovaness is one of a small circle of composers who have [unknowingly] influenced my work. He, once said of his own work,

“Simplicity is difficult, not easy. Beauty is simple.  All unnecessary elements are removed — only essence remains.”

Almost a credo for my own mark-making.

Museum of Contemporary Art

Erik ReeL, 1816, acrylic on paper

The exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara has two of the three largest works I’ve ever exhibited in California [approximately 9 x 5 feet], and a collection of my works on paper which are rarely exhibited.  The work has its own room to itself and so has the feel of a solo show inside a very strong group show.

The exhibition will be up until the end of the month, 29 March.

For a review of the show click here.

Abstraction vs Representation

Erik ReeL, #1354, acrylic painting


Perhaps Picasso said it best:

“From the point of view of art, there are no abstract or concrete forms; there are only forms, and they are all lies that are more or less convincing.”

It’s Endless

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1291, acrylic on paper

Once I stripped all extraneous referentiality out of my paintings, instead of encountering the expected: a minimalistic, reductivist abstract modality, I quickly discovered richer, non-reductivist, possibilities that presented a seemingly endless range of emotional responses and readings.

This richness exists in part because there is a similar range of open possibilities in how the human mind appropriates marks for its own meanings and cognitive purposes, even without a specific spoken-language or any of its possible representational schemes.

What was clear at all stages was the fact that it was possible to create profoundly different emotional responses within a surprisingly highly constrained visual idiom.

Thus, again, we come to: Oh. Wait, there’s more that can be said and done.



Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1289 Swedish Fishing, acrylic painting

The possibilities I became interested in  concerned exploring what could be called proto-linguistic possibilities. Especially in the sense that these marks were, in part, the super set of marks from which many human cultures pulled the marking set developed for representing marking systems with explicitly mapped meanings.

These sets with explicitly mapped meanings include marking sets such as:

– alphabets, syllabaries, hieroglyphs, runes, and brush-characters, etc used to represent written language, that is, as the full written representation of a spoken language;

– or quasi-linguistic systems such as hobo-signs, trail signs, rail signs, or battle-signs; which, though they have explicit meanings, do not cover an entire spoken language;

-or specialized highly abbreviated notational systems such as those employed for music, movement, and modern mathematics [as opposed to, say, medieval mathematics, where the formula and relationships, with the exception of integer numbers and their basic arithmetical operations, are written out long-hand in Latin or Arabic].

Once inserted into the paintings, and frequently distorted, the marks are not intended as representations in any of these systems, but rather as human marks prior to their subsequent adoption to a specific written language, thus  “proto” in the sense of “prior to” or “preliminary to” a spoken language.

New Year

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1292, acrylic painting

Happy New Year everyone!

Ecce Homo

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1282, acrylic painting

Painting as exploring mark-making itself; mark-making freed of all its referentiality to the material world, to history, to story-telling, to materialistic pretension.

One question that immediately arises: What makes mark-making specifically human, and if human, hand-made [as opposed to human and human-machine-made]?

Another is: What if everything else is stripped away and we only see marking? Marking without explicit representation anywhere? Specifically, marks on a flat– and thus “to be read” surface, thus de-emphasizing, even denying,  its material thing-ness?

More to Do

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1280, Swedish Fishing, acrylic on linen

Eventually I, too, came to feel that in painting there was still more to be done, that there was meaningful,  and possibly visually arresting, territory yet to be explored.

What remained, I felt, was a certain exploration of mark-making itself.

Mark-making freed of all its referentiality to the material world, to history, to story-telling, to materialistic pretension and dysfunction.

The added bonus, for me, was that this also placed such painting against the materialism buried deep within the culture around me.  Painting that stood against materialism in both radical and subtle ways.

Witold Lutoslawski

Erik ReeL painting, #1297
Erik ReeL, #1297, Ascent, acrylic on canvas, courtesy private collection

The German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling [1775-1854] in his Philosophy of Art [1802-3], said that “architecture is like frozen music”  , a sentiment famously echoed by Goethe in 1836. Since Paul Klee, a similar equivalence has often been proposed for describing abstract painting.

For many, much architecture and most painting has probably felt to fall far short of the musical, though I suspect it also depends on what music one is listening to.  For me, my painting has been directly inspired by and in some cases explicitly linked to specific music. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the inspiration I’ve received from the jazz of  Miles Davis, Monk,  Ornette Coleman, and others.

One composer whose music feels very close to my present work is the mature work of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski [1913-1994]; in particular, his aleatoric  ad libitum technique that dominates his Chain compositions,  piano concerto, and the third and fourth symphonies.  This is especially true of much of my work on paper, which constitute a virtually daily visual diary and reservoir of ideas for my larger works on canvas.

There is no explicit connection between us, but I can often hear his music in my own paintings.  There is an openness and freedom in his music that I seek to express in my improvisational work.  Both of us, I suspect, have our inner dread of the predictable and pre-determined.

Ruins of Runes

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1393 Silence, acrylic on canvas

In 2014 Sean Riehl produced a video, The Visual Language of Erik ReeL, featuring me talking about my work. The following text is taken from that video and lightly edited for reading.

I am primarily an improvisational abstract painter. I like the idea of layering in the painting, when you work within the painting’s own reality, it’s own field, a conceptual field. I got that free-form thing that Tobey was doing where the marks are made on top of each other, and there’s the evidence of the hand, and the marks just layer over the top of each other and it’s a field.

About ten years ago I noticed people doing all this stuff on whiteboards where they don’t always erase very well. Or people do things on billboards and signs and there’s graffiti and then they repaint or overpaint the surface, and there’s evidence of these layers of intention.

In the modern world we have all these instances where people are writing and making their mark, and then there is also someone else who is trying to come along and erase them, and they do a lousy job of erasing them, or they half erase them, and so marks get made over marks, and it becomes this archeology of mark-making.

I became intrigued with that as a foundation for painting. That is how I got into my current stuff.

With each subsequent layer, it becomes this layering that starts to obscure things in a way that actually makes it more interesting. So someone else comes along and sees that, hey, there was this activity that has occurred in this space, but we can now no longer simply read it, there isn’t any clear language, it is not decipherable in any clear way. It’s as if we’re looking at the ruins of our culture, the ruins of mark-making.

In the fossil record, when homo sapiens appear, one of the more dramatic things that you see, besides the tool complexity, is that everything is marked. Everything is decorated, marked, formed. There is something very critical about leaving your mark to these early human beings. Even a very utilitarian piece of something has to have something that is either pointing to something beyond itself or a personal mark.

Whenever humans are confronted with a reality that feels too inhuman, that feels too threatening or that becomes too impersonal –like a lot of urban reality — you see things evolve like graffitti.

I remember the first time I went to New York, someone where I was staying said, “ah, the graffitti on the trains is terrible!” … then I saw a couple of trains that had been bombed [=sprayed entirely with graffitti], and they were beautiful. It was amazing, the self-expression and all this human marking in a reality that’s quite cold– it’s all metal, dark, dirty, you know the subways, yet there’s these beautiful colors and all. It’s just our impulse.

So a lot of my work has to do with those fundamental impulses to mark, to make signs.

There are lots of proto-alphabets and sign systems out there that people have studied where people got to the point where, “well I do this mark, and I do this mark and eventually I try and end up with a language.”

I was looking for a visual language. I knew when things were really starting to click, when I would reach a point where I’d make just a couple of marks and suddenly the whole thing just comes together. Then you know that there’s something working there in terms of consciousness that says, “Oh, this does something, and before it wasn’t doing anything.”

At my last exhibition [at the 643 Project Space] a critic talked about certain kinds of reality, such as the formations in reality caused by subatomic particles, or at the other extreme, the deep space field observations from Hubble with their clustering of galaxies and all. He kept saying that when he looked at my paintings, he kept seeing those kind of structures. These structures that seem almost chaotic, but they are actually being governed by deeper physical forces that make things pull together or repel.*

So even though I’m saying that I’m trying to create another reality, there’s this strange way the paintings are echo-ing these structures and visual realities of these other things; even though I said I’m not “re-presenting” anything, I’m not representing anything — maybe it’s not like a chair or something– but I seem to be representing these macro and very small realities.

* see Jae Carlssen, Tabula Rasa, catalogue essay for the Erik ReeL exhibition at the 643 Project Space, April 2013.

Technicolor Tobey

Erik ReeL, #1253, Technicolor Tobey, acrylic on canvas

When growing up in Seattle with Tobey’s late “white writing” paintings, with their ochres, blacks and whites–the whole “Northwest Mystic” school used color like that– I dreamed of doing a Tobey in full color.

“When I grow up,” I said, “I’m going to paint a Technicolor Tobey.”

So that’s what I did.

Swinging 4

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1277, acrylic on paper

Abstraction. New endpoints. Subsequent diversion into pictorial means. So it goes.

Around a personal praxis or process that insured a unique image vocabulary, at each point the initial impetus to abstraction is driven by something genuinely new, quickly followed by a sense that everything possible has been done so far as is possible via abstract imagery.

Once this endpoint is accepted, artists move off into more pictorial– or, alternatively, into non-two-dimensional concerns. The latter initiating what one could call the “concrete” alternative.

So we move off into the pictorial or the concrete. Either way, re-affirming the deep-rooted Materialism within our culture.

Then, something happens. Someone, someone tired of feeding the materialist monster, someone fed up enough with our material world, says, “Wait, I see there is more to be done.” and further, “I don’t want to refer to anything in this material world; I am sick and tired of feeding the materialist monster.” From there it is less than a quark to total abstraction.

We seem to be at such a point again.

Swinging 3

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1275, acrylic on paper

In America as it came onto the edge of things, it did not take long for Tobey, then later Pollack and an entire generation or two [followed by another in Europe with Art Informal, Tapies, etc] to come up with an entirely new approach to abstraction. Approaches primarily centered on improvisation, an emphasis on scale, broadly brushed expressiveness, and a certain approach to materials and paint, process and gesture.

But once this abstract “expressionism” if you will is  seen as exhausted, a more pictorial means is sought, and used to subvert representation. Thus we see Pop emerge and pictorial tactics intended to critique media and advertising and other coercive modes of representational pictorial production.

But wait.

There’s more to be done, abstraction-wise.  After the pictorial retrenchment of Pop, we see a new generation of “format” abstraction, from Stella to Bridget Riley, where each “signature style” claims a very specific, rather small, highly constrained territory of format, technique, and idea.

This heralds a generation that sees the most ruthless reductivist tendencies since Malevich: All black paintings and minimalism exploiting both pictorial and constructive means of extreme visual reduction.

The 70s sees a matched triumph of an ancillary aggressively formalist art criticism emphasized in art magazines such as ArtForum.

From there things swing so far as Coplans  declaring the eternal triumph of photo-based, thus pictorial, imagery forever more, and the consequent rise of Flash Art magazine.

New endpoints. New subsequent diversion into pictorial means. And so it goes.

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1276, acrylic on paper

Swinging 2

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1271, acrylic on paper

Once Kandinsky and other modernists  go abstract,   the highly reductive Malevich and the Supremacists,  and  Mondrian find what seemed like suitable end-points for non-objective painting, that is, painting that is so abstract that it no longer has a motif, or represented object.

Mondrian systematically took himself step by step through the whole process, from an initial reduction from representation, through increasing abstraction of that representation from the motif, to the total abstraction of his signature style.  At the end of his life, he injects an abstract referentiality, if you will,  back into the mix in the final Broadway Boogie Woogie paintings..

Once the abstract end-point is found, it seems to shunt the next generation off into other concerns. To the Modernists, from there, it only remained to find abstract means to paintings that still contained recognizable motifs, or to move to more figurative and hence, pictorial, means, albeit for purposes that still intended to subvert traditional representation, such as the multivariate tactics of the Surrealists.

For Picasso, who lives and flows through several generations, he carries out these swings within his own work. Sometimes within a single day.  This has also been  a tendency in the current generation [Humphries, Josh Smith, Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, et al.].



Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, # 1257, acrylic on linen

Though the very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves abstraction, it took awhile for painting to realize a completely abstract image, and the significance of doing so.

Historically, over the last century or so, once “total” abstraction emerges, it quickly devolves into a reductionist mode and finds a point where “everything seems to have been done” and we see a swing away from abstraction into more pictorial modes. This goes on for a short while until another generation says, “oh, wait; there’s more to be said and done” and off we go again.

Clear Lines and Edges

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1265, acrylic on paper

If one considers abstraction as the transformation of complex visual stimuli into clear lines or a series of edges or pattern of values on a surface, or the predominance of abstract patterns produced for centuries in tile, textiles, and wood, then abstraction has been with us for the entire history of art.

The very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves an abstraction. Look closely at a Rembrandt drawing as he finds fascinating graphic equivalents for what he wants to represent out there “in the world.”

Rembrandt drawing
Rembrandt drawing, courtesy Wikipedia

Or one could ask: What could be more abstract than a pixellated black and white photograph?

Though the very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves abstraction, it took awhile for painting to realize a completely abstract image, and the significance of doing so.

Resting Lightly on the Earth

Erik ReeL, 1259, acrylic on canvas

I recently re-read Raphael Rubinstein’s  Provisional Painting Part 2: To Rest Lightly on Earth, from the February 2012 issue of Art in America.  This is, I feel, one of the best things written about painting in this century, so far.

I like it for not only what Professor Rubinstein says, but also for how he says it.  Its style and approach to  writing seem particularly appropriate for the topics discussed. Even the title is pitch perfect.

It is also an extremely helpful read for anyone interested in my art.

It is for this reason that I include it in my bibliography page, even though it is not explicitly about my painting, it reads as if it is, more so than most of the writing that is explicitly about my painting. What Rubinstein says is certainly applicable to my current  painting praxis and philosophy.

I encourage everyone interested in my art to read it.

Note also that it is part two to an earlier article,  Provisional Painting, published in the May 2009 issue of Art in America. The earlier article is a very different, but no less important piece.