Sapien ex Machina

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1679, acrylic on paper

In the recent film Ex Machina Jackson Pollack’s concept of automatic painting is mentioned in conjunction with testing whether an Artificial Intelligence is displaying programmed behaviour or  willfully conscious behavior. It’s a subtly complex issue, both for AI and art.

The programmers in the movie also make the astute point that if Jackson Pollack had to be rationally aware of each action, its meaning, and its significance, it would probably have been impossible for him to make a single mark. Rational awareness, and rationality, has its own built-in limitations.


It is virtually impossible for a machine to create a truly random sequence, because its activity has to be programmed, that is, determined by something, or constructed via something that cannot be random called computer code.. Mathematicians have shown that even the so-called “random number generators” of computers are precisely not random.

In that case one has to exploit data from certain phenomena which exhibit specific tendencies to chaotic behaviour under certain conditions.  In this way, a machine might be made to generate what seems to be random-like sequences.  This turns out to be far more difficult than it would appear at first glance.

It is also very difficult for a human to make something that is not willful.  Certain states have to be attained or cultivated that permit more freely unmotivated behaviour or actions.  There is an interesting gray area or set of fringe situations where things seem to be somewhat random, but aren’t, but are completely program-free, even rational-free. It is this area that has become increasingly interesting as the search for AI continues and our exploration of the problem of human consciousness continues as we gain deeper insight into human consciousness, both ontologically and epistemologically, and the human mind’s awareness evolves of what, specifically, makes it a human mind.

This is precisely the territory that my painting explores.  I further constrict the limitations on randomness by consciously outlawing some of Pollacks devices, such as flung paint. Every mark is made via a deliberate action of the human hand, my hand, so that human intention is inherently involved. But all traces of rational structure and “programmed” process are also eliminated.

This is one reason I’ve never been much interested with what many have come up with in terms of mathematically or geometrically determined art. To me, such art is  exploring the very territory that is most irrelevant to  our future understanding of human, and on the converse side, artificial, intelligence.  If it is mathematically determined structure, then the problems above are solved, known, and relatively straightforward. It is in the cases where no mathematical or geometrically generated structure manifests that the demarcations and issues of human, or non-human intelligence get really interesting.

Picasso, again

F4Picasso again:

“Painting is not intended for decorating apartments … it is an offensive weapon of war and a defensive one against the enemy.”

[from Daix, Picasso]

Picasso, like Einstein and Gandhi, gets a lot of quotes attributed to him that are not his. But this one, captured in similar form in more than one instance and published by two people who were very close to Picasso [Daix, and Francoise Gilot] is certainly authentic.

People who want to give more heft to something they want to say, rather than claim it themselves, like to attribute what they are saying to one of these three, even if the quote has no relationship, or is even contrary, to the ideas and beliefs of these three giants.

Particularly peculiar are the quotes attributed to Picasso which discuss some aspect of art in terms of God, or mention the word “God”. It is well known that Picasso never used the term “God” and was at best agnostic.  He did make some comments that are extremely antagonistic to any religious sentiment or  belief in God. He also produced some art that amounted to a scathing critique of the Church and religious belief.

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 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.

Ecce Homo

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1282, acrylic painting

Painting as exploring mark-making itself; mark-making freed of all its referentiality to the material world, to history, to story-telling, to materialistic pretension.

One question that immediately arises: What makes mark-making specifically human, and if human, hand-made [as opposed to human and human-machine-made]?

Another is: What if everything else is stripped away and we only see marking? Marking without explicit representation anywhere? Specifically, marks on a flat– and thus “to be read” surface, thus de-emphasizing, even denying,  its material thing-ness?

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.

Witold Lutoslawski

Erik ReeL painting, #1297
Erik ReeL, #1297, Ascent, acrylic on canvas, courtesy private collection

The German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling [1775-1854] in his Philosophy of Art [1802-3], said that “architecture is like frozen music”  , a sentiment famously echoed by Goethe in 1836. Since Paul Klee, a similar equivalence has often been proposed for describing abstract painting.

For many, much architecture and most painting has probably felt to fall far short of the musical, though I suspect it also depends on what music one is listening to.  For me, my painting has been directly inspired by and in some cases explicitly linked to specific music. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the inspiration I’ve received from the jazz of  Miles Davis, Monk,  Ornette Coleman, and others.

One composer whose music feels very close to my present work is the mature work of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski [1913-1994]; in particular, his aleatoric  ad libitum technique that dominates his Chain compositions,  piano concerto, and the third and fourth symphonies.  This is especially true of much of my work on paper, which constitute a virtually daily visual diary and reservoir of ideas for my larger works on canvas.

There is no explicit connection between us, but I can often hear his music in my own paintings.  There is an openness and freedom in his music that I seek to express in my improvisational work.  Both of us, I suspect, have our inner dread of the predictable and pre-determined.

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 me talking about my work. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Technicolor Tobey

Erik ReeL, #1253, Technicolor Tobey, acrylic on canvas

When growing up in Seattle with Tobey’s late “white writing” paintings, with their ochres, blacks and whites–the whole “Northwest Mystic” school used color like that– I dreamed of doing a Tobey in full color.

“When I grow up,” I said, “I’m going to paint a Technicolor Tobey.”

So that’s what I did.

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.


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.].



Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, # 1257, acrylic on linen

Though the very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves abstraction, it took awhile for painting to realize a completely abstract image, and the significance of doing so.

Historically, over the last century or so, once “total” abstraction emerges, it quickly devolves into a reductionist mode and finds a point where “everything seems to have been done” and we see a swing away from abstraction into more pictorial modes. This goes on for a short while until another generation says, “oh, wait; there’s more to be said and done” and off we go again.

Clear Lines and Edges

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1265, acrylic on paper

If one considers abstraction as the transformation of complex visual stimuli into clear lines or a series of edges or pattern of values on a surface, or the predominance of abstract patterns produced for centuries in tile, textiles, and wood, then abstraction has been with us for the entire history of art.

The very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves an abstraction. Look closely at a Rembrandt drawing as he finds fascinating graphic equivalents for what he wants to represent out there “in the world.”

Rembrandt drawing
Rembrandt drawing, courtesy Wikipedia

Or one could ask: What could be more abstract than a pixellated black and white photograph?

Though the very nature of putting something down on a two-dimensional surface inherently involves abstraction, it took awhile for painting to realize a completely abstract image, and the significance of doing so.