Erik ReeL, Opus 1678, acrylic on archival paper, 30 x 22,
Art may be many things, but sometimes it is simply a reminder preserving a better frame of mind, an alternative, a weapon on the side of everyday folks in their daily fight against drudgery, despair, despotism, disenfranchisement, and death. The five Ds.
The Third of May, a famous date for the history of painting. Here’s my Opus 1668, a more positive and ecstatic tribute to the human spirit for today, even though we may live in times no less dark than Goya’s.
In Opus 1665, I am using a paper I usually don’t paint on. Its very lightweight, less than 130 Kg/m2 and does not take the same degree of textural effects as what I usually work on. In some ways this makes things clearer. Exuberant energies at work here. Enjoy.
You can see that I was on quite a roll from opus 1660 to 1663. Since the general process per painting takes at least about 5 days due to drying and setting times of the paint, I tend to work on several, up to a dozen, at a time, .
Ironically, I tend to do an oil painting in less time than a similarly-sized acrylic, partly because I use a lot more layers in the acrylics as I exploit the substantially greater transparency of the polymer medium.
The Opus number refers to my current studio log, which was started at the end of 1999. So opus 1662 means that this is the 1,662nd work I’ve done since the beginning of 2000.
This painting is on 30 x 22 inch [75 x 55 cm] archival printmaking paper. I am using liquid acrylic paint, pastels and pencils and charcoal and a lot of acrylic medium as well as paint. The papers I use the most are Magnani Pescia [crown watermark grade] and Italia, Rives BFK, Lana Royale, Rives de Lin, DS Lenox, and Fabriano Artistico hot press which is the only watercolor paper I typically use. Magnani Pescia, crown watermark, is by far my most favorite paper.
Unfortunately, this paper seems to be no longer available in the United States. There are people in the USA who say they are selling it, but they are not selling the watermark grade, which is the best grade and the grade I use. It seems that the people in American who order this paper cannot tell the difference between the lower grades and the crown watermark [or top grade] paper, so the mills and suppliers ship them the lower quality stuff, charge them the same price as the crown watermark paper and they, in turn try to fob this stuff onto us, the artists, and charge the higher price as well. There are seven versions of Magnani Pescia. This follows a longstanding, but growing trend in the USA of art suppliers substituting lower quality items for long-available quality items.
Fortunately, in some cases, there are conscientious, usually smaller, more specialized, suppliers entering into the game who either have started producing their own art supplies here in America, or still try to get the original, quality merchandise. If you are an artist, I encourage you to seek out and support these suppliers, especially if they are local. On the other side of things, some of the best supplies can only be obtained from their source in fairly large quantities: quality stretcher bars from China, art paper from Italy, etc., usually can only be ordered in quantities of at least a shipping container or railroad car at a time. You’d think with globalization, it’d get easier to obtain internationally produced items, not more difficult.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes there are a whole lot of people tired of feeding the materialist monster.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.