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.”

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.].