Semiotic Abstraction

Erik ReeL, # 1783 Before the Sands, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 36 | 107 x 92 cm, 2013.

The painting of Erik ReeL is in some sense a study of human markings, how we make marks, and from that, how signs come into being. His compositional and full visual language is more about how things come about, clump together, fly apart, from nano- to macroscopic scales. But what it is flying across these paintings are signs, or more often, proto-signs, signs coming into and out of existence.

Semiotics, or the study of the meaning of signs, or how signs mean, has gone to great lengths to look at how the use of signs, say, their repetition or a shift in context, can radically impact their meanings. It is in this shifting and use of his marks that ReeL points us to an interest in meanings, and it is in this interest in meanings that the work brings in its semiotic import..

Some marks, in isolation, are clearly readable signs such as numbers, greek and roman letters, mathematical symbols. On a more pictoral level are esoteric Tantric symbols and stylized representations of boats, genitalia, trees, hills, bodies of water, clouds, fences, pathways. These more often than not point to tropes involving journeys, transformation, entrance into states, and other relatively psychologically charged meanings.

Everywhere ambivalence and multifaceted interpretations are forced open, and our ability to focus on a definitive interpretation is invariably sharply attenuated.

In some paintings, particularly those done around 2010, the title exists in the painting, often broken down in a way to invoke different meanings. For example, in the painting titled Heraclitus, one of ReeL’s favorite philosophers, the title appears in the painting broken down into Her … a … clit …us, thus providing a very different set of meanings unrelated to the pre-Socratic philosopher of flux. Similarly, very often the paintings impart sexual or diverted sexual readings that are not conveyed by the titles alone.

In a telephone interview of the artist, it became clear that he is well acquainted with his references and has seemingly read everything from Heraclitus and Plato to Nietzsche and Heidegger, likes to listen to 20th century and contemporary symphonic and choral music, and generally seems to exist on a completely different planet untouched by American pop culture and television.

Ironically, he really does use graffiti in his paintings; that is, graffiti in its original sense, meaning “scratched line”, including sgraffiti, which means scratching lines to reveal color or a surface underneath the top layer of paint. Interestingly, his work is greatly admired by many taggers and aerosol grafitti artists, so they in some intuitive way understand and see the connections, or at least the freedom of hand and gesture that pervades ReeL’s best work. Perhaps that is enough.

Nelson Jesson