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 ReeL talking about his painting. 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.

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
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.”

5.
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.

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