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”

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.

Literal Minds

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1696, acrylic

Nietzsche referred to literal minds as small minds.  The videographer and performance artist, Alan Lande, preferred the term “insects.”

Tyrannized by photographs, we forget that 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 the secrets of the heart. What does an instrument know of a dream? a caress? the soft whispering in the night? what is hidden from the moonlight?

What is poly-valent cannot possibly be rendered literally. Is this triangle a tree? a roof? a ray of light? a road moving into the distance? a shadow? a shrine? a pyramid? a leaf? a yoni? an arrow? a sign? a direction? a delta? Am I overlooking hills or lying between breasts? or both? or neither? Time to do something better than roar across concrete, drop onto floors, scream.


Follow the Money

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1680, acrylic on linen

Herodotus and Thucydides reveal that between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the entire Greek-speaking world for the most part had monetized virtually every bit of land and aspect of civilized life.

This determines a lot of how and why they did things, including wage war. In fact, it seems to be an integral aspect of the motivations in the ancient Greek world for the near perpetual warfare that finally engulfed and bankrupted them during the long and horrific Peloponnesian conflicts.

So Orwell’s grim vision of the future of Capitalism and its potential for perpetual warfare was prefigured already in Thucydides’ history. On the other hand, history presents us with one of its little ironies: that modern Greece has become the current focus and  challenge to Europe’s latest attempts at melding a peaceful world order with the Capitalist monetization of every aspect of society. Or is it just one more instance revealing that the project is inherently contradictory after all? And perhaps not an irony, but confirmation that the Greeks have held to a profound truth all along.

That Coding Thing

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1294 Galisteo, acrylic painting, 54 x 48 “

I was once asked if there was coding in my paintings.

I answered “Yes.”

But it was not a simple “yes”– for coding implicitly means explicit and narrow referentiality and thus, in my terms, to be avoided or discarded.

But then, later, in the end, I actually do sneak in personal codes with explicit intentions and references, thus violating what I say I am doing.

Most of these insertions are sexual and/or personal, and thus private.

Then there’s the issue regarding believing what artists say about what their own work means: It’s called the intentionalist fallacy.

It is a true fallacy, believe me.

Geometry is Insufficient

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1293, acrylic painting

My current paintings use a highly constrained visual praxis: For the most part, I primarily use simple open and closed convex curves of genus 0 or 1. This is a severely constrained set in light of all the possibilities.

Occasionally I throw in a non-constrained deviant, or something that is more of a mess, a scribble, than a mark. Again, I have no “pure” intentions, nor reductivist ambitions, here. I am more interested in discarding the referentiality of Modernism and Post-Modernism, the baggage of the whole mimetic tradition.

This is also, of course, why this work is explicitly post-Structural and post-Conceptual.

Notice, too, that amongst the referential modes I reject are the highly regularized patterns, geometries, and rationally predictable “formats” of that wave of abstraction we first saw emerge in the late 60s and 70s and to a certain extent, still emerging in Los Angeles and later, again, amongst the Post-Moderns, especially as tilings–to say nothing of the Modernist grid, and its “formats”–are all considered references to external systems to be avoided in this new endeavor.

Geometry is insufficient.

The End of Historicity

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1287, The Wheel, acrylic painting

There were painters who I felt had  come close to what I had in mind such as Twombly, especially in his graphite and paint work of the 70s. But these painters and their mark-making were always eventually subsumed by historical, literary, even mythic referential concerns that I not only considered retro-grade–if not outright Romantic in a specifically unnecessary way–but as compromising the more radical aspects of the marks as marks.

Not that this is evil or anything. In Twombly’s case, for instance, it is usually a personal and  refreshing tactic to bring in latent emotional and historical content that deepens and expands our experience of the image. It works, but is also contrary to what I wanted to do.

The truth is, this referentiality, this re-presentational, representational modality detracted from the, what was to me,  more core, possibilities of exploring marks for their intrinsic mark-making characteristics as marks in and of themselves. This leads to exploring marks in terms of cognitive processing, rather than history.

Yet, there is a line not to be crossed on the other side as well: when, instead of deeper forces and cognitive processing, a sort of emotive, self-absorbed, bathos-logical processing leading to amorphous content-free therapeutic effusion is indulged. The superficiality and emptiness of the results of this approach are frequently all too apparent.

A key test: when work descends to this level, it can be exhausted in minutes, if not seconds; while people stand for hours arguing in front of mine, or call me months after buying a painting to tell me how much more they have seen in it.  In short, there is living proof of the depths, richness, and  communicable meaning to be found there..

The Monster … Again

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1284 Dos Equis, acrylic painting

Another set of questions involves exposing the underlying Materialist philosophical underpinnings of Post-Modernism: the primary Post-Modernist strategies that lead to either pictorial or concrete art praxis.  Two orientations that exclude the possibilities of improvisational painting that celebrates its non-thing-ness., its anti-materiality. Post-Modernism embodies the materialist bias moving art toward concerning itself with things in a physical, material world, in a near-totalitarian Consumerist social context.

Within this context the choice remains to consume, or exploit art’s marketable and hence monetary value, that is, its value as an exchange for materialistic goods. This includes attempts to aestheticize experience itself in a manner supporting a culturally privileged set of statii, such as associating its appearance in a museum, or alternatively, its status on the street, to what is “in” or the “next new thing,” that is, to having status in and of itself, or its status as some sort of “avant garde” activity, in spite of the long known bankruptcy of this notion, with all the historical linearity and presupposition of privileged status that implies.,

Post-Modernism itself has become a brand, a designation of privilege, like some “Good Housekeeping Seal” of approval, a specific cultural status to be accepted by a specific caste– the “advanced” cultural-scentii with its anointed  cognoscenti, arbiters, and provocateurs.

The Materialist Monster

Sometimes there are a whole lot of people tired of feeding the materialist monster.

Materialism in the streets, U.S. Army M1 tanks in Tall Afar, Iraq,  3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force. (Released)
Materialism in the streets, U.S. Army M1 tanks in Tall Afar, Iraq, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Especially when they see all this material wealth bent on dropping bombs on other people, or driving tanks into their living rooms …

while millions  subsist [WHO says billions] without drinkable water, adequate medicine, or sufficient food, but within reach of a cold beer, soda, or cigarettes.

The question arises, if the world’s wealth and will can get refrigeration for beer, soda, and supply cigarettes to people, how come we can’t refrigerate medicines, or food or get these same people decent water?


The End of Inner Life

Erik ReeL, #1377, acrylic on paper, 22 x 15 “

In the world today we are confronted with relentless pressure to externalize everything, to live for the external world and its purpose. In America, with our traditions of pragmatism and materialism, this pressure is particularly deep-seated.  Every part of you is to be re-imagined into something that serves an external purpose, image, or use.

It is a totalization, where only that which is external has meaning. You only count if you are involved in, or focused on, or seen in, or known within, an external context.

Our electronic and media environments and devices only accelerate and extend this externalization. People become lost to any sense of their inner self. The external continually interjects and distracts us from the inner.

I paint for your inner self, for your inner experience.  My greatest fear is that people will become unable to even relate or see art in this way anymore. That they will become emptied out to the point that it is no longer even possible to sense that someone, an artist, or an image, is speaking to or trying to interact with their inner core.

The final result of all this externalization is an emptying out. Once you are fully external, you are empty, hollowed out. It is an emptying out that no amount of additional external inputs can fulfill.  At that point, you will have to seek art that speaks to your inner life, or you will be no better than dead.


Babi Yar

29 September –  I have been listening to Schostakovich’s 13th Symphony, otherwise known as Babi Yar, after the Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem that serves as the text for the first movement.

Babi Yar is a ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, site of a mass grave for 150,000 men, women, and children, mostly Jews, who were executed in 1941 by the Nazis during the German occupation of Kiev. There are eyewitness accounts from surviving POWs claiming that the Nazis were particularly cruel: children and their mothers were stripped naked and executed in front of each other.

Babi Yar-66
Mothers and their children assembled for mass execution at Babi Yar. Photo courtesy of The Berdichev Revival,

Originally working withYevtushenko’s  Babi Yar text, Shostakovich eventually extended the work into a five movement symphony at Yevtushenko’s suggestion based on additional material written by Yevtushenko, some specially for Shostakovich. Yevtushenko’s texts explicitly condemn Soviet and Russian  anti-Semitism and complicity with  ethnic persecutions in and beyond the Ukraine.

Yevtushenko tells a wonderful story about how the symphony came about: “We were not acquainted at the time. He [Shostakovich] telephoned me and asked, as he put it, for my  ‘kind permision’ to write music to my poem Babi Yar. I was stunned by his call, and answered, “But, of course, please.” He replied joyfully, “Wonderful. The music is already written. Come and hear it.”

Yevtushenko continued, “the most thrilling performance was the very first one, when Shostakovich himself sang it for me, sitting at the piano. He played and sang all the parts: the soloist, the chorus, and the orchestra. His eyes were filled with tears .” *

Two recordings of Babi Yar come to mind: one, a beautifully produced definitive production from Teldec by the New York Philharmonic and New York Choral Artists underr Kurt Masur.  Refined,  precise, powerful, deftly rendered with a full, respectful understanding of both Shostakovich and Yevtuschenko.

It  is a live recording, and features Yevtuschenko himself  reading both the title piece and a  closing recitation, The Loss, a poem saying many of the things that were difficult to say inside the Soviet Union.

The chorus and soloist are magnificent, delivering a clarity, unison,  and power you’d expect from a top-flight orchestra and mass chorale.

The other recording is from another world altogether. It is from a symphony and mass chorale consisting almost entirely of musicians from inside the old iron curtain under Ladislav Slovak recording under the Naxos label that pioneered CDs at cut-rate prices of lesser known,  minor orchestras which might have a special or closer connection to the composer or their material.

The Eastern European sound is radically different from the New York rendering:  At times, it is hard to believe they are singing the same music.

Never smooth, often jarring, raw and heavy,  the Eastern European voices cut and crawl across the score as if struggling up from the graves of Babi Yar itself.  In the softer passages they become ghosts, haunting and unnerving.  It is an earthy, dark, deeply felt recording.

These voices have an immediacy to them that tells us that it is not over yet, that this reality is not behind us.

Yevtushenko tells us that the Soviets never placed a monument at Babi Yar. At that time only a small stone placed by the Ukranians says that some day there will be a monument placed at Babi Yar.

Babi Yar-82
Monument erected in 1966 at Babi Yar. The Ukrainian text reads: “On this site there will be a monument for the victims of fascism (during the German occupation of Kiev, 1941 – 1943).” photo credit The Berdichev Revival,

In 1982, a memorial park for Babi Yar was built in Denver, Colorado, with an inscribed black granite entrance gateway and a black bridge over a ravine.

A special ceremony of Remembrance is held there every year on 29 September.

Let us remember and work to create a world in which a Babi Yar becomes no longer possible.


* Harlow Robinson interview of Yevtushenko for Stagebill, magazine of the New York Philharmonic,  January, 1993, from Teldec liner notes, 1994.



Deep Field

Erik ReeL, 1364, The Fall, acrylic on linen

In previous posts, I mentioned how people have interpreted my work as a critique of materialism and some of the ideas that motivated these interpretations.  But there is another, complementary way to look at meaning in the work and its structure.

This  approach was taken by the retired art critic, Jae Carllsen [Artforum, Art Dish], who pointed out that these compositions reminded him of both very large and vary small scaled structures that actually do or might exist in the universe; in particular, structures driven by complex, sometimes seemingly chaotic, processes.

Hubble, ultra-deep field, wikipedia
Hubble, ultra-deep field, wikipedia

Underneath the seeming chaos, there are subtler laws determining what we can see or know.  In a sense, the work presented a  deeper sense of representation.

From this viewpoint my paintings  are seen as some sort of corollary presentation of relationships echong either large cosmic structures, such as those we see in astronomy or …


Cloud chamber
Cloud chamber showing evidence of sub-atomic particles. photo courtesy wikipedia.

structures we know of only as we encounter phenomena on an extremely small scale, such as atomic and molecular, or even smaller, less visible scales.

In all cases these are situations where structures and interactions are primarily created by largely invisible forces. Forces that at first glance seem to be chaotic and without pattern, but in fact present patterns on a more profound plane of reality.

Erik ReeL, 1395, acrylic on paper
Erik ReeL, 1395, acrylic on paper

It has also been suggested that this approach lies  outside the schemes favored by either Modernism or Post-Modernism.  That it is something new in art.

Art history aside, what is appropriate, and encouraging to me, is that so many intelligent observers see how these works entail natural patterns and things that exist out there in the world, even though I draw entirely, in a free-form, improvisational manner, directly from inside my self.  In this sense, they are primarily congnitive, and an entry into a subtler connection between the cognitive and the external world. That is, they are about consciousness.  They are about what is inside us.

Materialist Presumptions

Erik ReeL, 1256, acrylic on linen

As opposed to abstract painting, Materialism brings with it a host of presumptions and pretensions about what art is and should be, how it should be valued and thought about; values that have been echoed by previous cultures , such as Imperial Rome. These assumptions include [ each a book unto itself]:

The primacy of rendering or producing an accurate representation of an external physical reality with a work of art. For non-materialists, it is possible to question even the possibility of such a rendering.

Art as 3D rendering, courtesy Vatican images and wikipedia
Art as 3D rendering, courtesy Vatican images and wikipedia

An obsession with the medium or material from which a work of art is made, even going so far as to use the medium as a primary category for classifying, and judging, a work of art;

A close corollary to this is the pretense that some work is more important solely because its medium is unprecedented or new;

An emphasis on the thing-ness of a work of art as opposed to its non-material aspects;

A corollary rise in the predominance of sculptural, three-dimensionhal, physical, and spatial forms of art practice over two-dimensional and imaginative forms., including a de-valuation of two-dimensional forms if they insist in persisting only within two dimensions;

An obsession with the monetary value of the work of art, that is, its exchange value for other material goods, as opposed to its cultural value;

An emphasis on art as public display as public spectacle rather than more personal, private, contemplative viewing modalities. This includes the spectacle surrounding the work of art, its physical context, rather than the direct personal experience of the work without distraction.

Materialism in the streets, U.S. Army M1 tanks in Tall Afar, Iraq,  3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force. (Released)
Materialism in the streets, U.S. Army M1 tanks in Tall Afar, Iraq, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

It is no accident that both Rome and the late 20th century United States witnessed an ascendency of sculptural and three-dimensional forms, including the installation within an entire “space”, performative modes emphasizing spectacle or extreme and sensational “realism”, engineering and the corollary means to wage war and dominate the material world, These are all part of the same materialistic orientation. They go together.

Perhaps an artist living in such a culture should choose to not re-inforce such a set of values.

Abstraction Contra Materialism

In a previous post, I talked about mark-making as a primal part of human development in relation to my  work.  By mark-making in this context I mean specifically hand-made marks, made directly by the hand, not the marked remnants of mechanical and machine processes, which are also, specifically human.

Erik Reel, 1424, pencil drawing on paper

Perhaps because of this, some observers have interpreted my work as a “critique of the machine-made, of technology, of the manufactured,” and a re-affirmation of a more fundamental, personal realm of experience, even a critique of the materialism born by our manufactured, industrial, highly materialistic, world.

Not only have deep thinkers of  monotheistic religions suspected there were dangers and problems with a direct representation of physical reality in works of art. Kandinsky, Tobey, and Rothko and others have pointed out that their eventual adoption of non-representational painting had some basis in a repudiation of not just the the material world, but Materialism itself.

Erik ReeL, Technicolor Tobey, acrlyic on canvas

It would be natural, and correct,  to assume that my work is a critique of materialism as well. That is, Materialism as the philosophical position, almost assumed without dissent today, which gives primacy to the material world, over against more human, psychic, and ethical values.



The Runes of Time

Erik ReeL, 1264, acrylic on archival paper

Since 2009 I have created a considerable body of work dealing with mark making. The fossil record tells us that hominid mark making seems to be wrapped up with something that separates us from what came before; something that lies very deep and early within our cognitive history.

Long before written language is invented, marking a surface, or marking by aligning stones, etc., at the very least signifies a presence, that someone is, or has been, here. Or has a claim to this artifact, cave, place, or territory.

Erik ReeL, 1256, acrylic on linen

Runes, hobo and rail signs–a host of systems of visual signs other than an explicit representation of a spoken language– have evolved, all using a basic, deeper, repertoire of human mark-making. Only relatively recently have these forms evolved into explicit notation systems for language, then later for music, dance, or mathematics [medieval mathematics, for example, was primarily recorded  discursively, not in the intensely abbreviated symbolic shorthands typical of modern mathematics].

But these marks all draw from the same basic repertoire of marks, many of which existed for thousands of years before being adopted to a specific notation. A repertoire that appears near universal.

to be continued.