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

Erik ReeL: Markings

Born in 1952, in Seattle, Erik ReeL, attended Whitman College, majoring in Mathematics, did a short stint at Berkeley, where he attended lectures of both Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse, before finishing his BA at the University of Washington in Seattle, majoring in Art History. At Washington he continued his connection to the Frankfurt School, working with Rainer Crone. In studio he cites studying with Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, Robert Jones, sumi-e with George Tsutakawa, and elsewhere studied Chinese brush with Hsieh Cheng, a collector-scholar who escaped the Communists, bringing a rather large collection of artifacts to the West.

After college, ReeL wrote art criticism for various publications, including ArtWeek, Vanguard, High Performance, and as correspondent for Peter Frank when Frank was working in New York City with ArtExpress. ReeL was also arts editor of the glossy city magazine, Seattle Voice and wrote a weekly column and reviews fro a daily newspaper. By 1980 ReeL had shifted primarily to making art rather than writing about it, though he had exhibited in his first professional show at 15. What follows is a smattering of relatively local shows, some three dozen solo shows and over a hundred group exhibitions, three marriages and divorces, and a sudden withdrawal from the visual art world around 1985, in spite of early encouragement from senior mentors as diverse as Gene Barto, Leo Castelli, George Maciunas, and Jacob Lawrence. The great Berlin critic, Max Faust visited ReeL’s Seattle studio in the early 80s–twice.

In 2009 Erik ReeL achieved a personal breakthrough in his painting, eliminating all vestiges of figuration and representation. What remained had been hinted at previously in his backgrounds, and a short period of similar abstraction in his twenties, but the 2009 shift brought a more nuanced approach and subtler handling of materials, and goes far beyond what had appeared in the previous decades. The new freedom revealed the true strength of the artist’s hand, and a new spaciousness, clarity, and sensitivity. The color is more subdued, but still at the core of the visual experience.

ReeL’s drawing and the sense of his hand, which has always been easily recognizable and a strong point of previous work, when he chose to reveal it, comes out with small markings and sgraffitto, the scratching of the top surfaces to reveal colors below. The work takes on a new tough, yet poetic, linear energy. Spatial ambiguities and layering begin to impose a certain intriguing cognitive processing in the mind of a viewer who takes their time and lets the painting sink into their consciousness.

In its denial of references to the material world–yes, there are sometimes words, but these seem to be carefully chosen to evoke more of a mental, ethereal reference than a material one–the new work could be read as a critique of materialism, of the machine the machine-made. The work is aggressively hand-made. No sense of computer or photographic imaging appears anywhere. On the contrary, the work is a triumph of feeling over the manufactured; a counterpoint to Post-Modernist machinations and mechanics. Other writers, most notably, Jae Carlsson, who once wrote under a variety of names for various publications, including ArtForum, have sensed a movement beyond Post-Modernist modes in the new work.

Though the new imagery is graffiti-like, it does not fit neatly into the recent tradition of tagging and street graffiti painting, but seems to draw more from the original meaning and context of graffitti, which after all, originally meant ‘scratched line’, not spray-paint. Interestingly, the work seems to be highly admired by many graffitti artists and collectors as a more private and nuanced, yet obliquely allied strain of pure painting with a distinct hand and intelligently constrained means of expression.

For ReeL, marking seems to be a defining characteristic of what it means to be human: he gives us inchoate marks as the primordial act of signification and meaning for human consciousness.

  • Nikki Arconi, 2010