Ruins of Runes

In 2014 the video producer and collector Sean Riehl produced a video, The Visual Language of Erik ReeL, shot in ReeL's studio and featuring Erik ReeL talking about his painting. The following text, Ruins of Runes, with light editing for readability, is taken from Erik ReeL's voice over in this video.

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 originally got this from 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 layer over the top of each other and the entire painting reads as a field.

About ten years ago I noticed people doing all this stuff on whiteboards which 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 [on surfaces], 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. That is how I got into my current stuff where there's this layering that starts to obscure things. We see that there was this activity that has occurred in this space, but we now can no longer simply read it. There's no longer any clear language. It is not decipherable in a very clear way. 

It’s as if we’re looking at the ruins of our culture, the ruins of mark-making.

the fossil record, when homo sapiens appear, humans, 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 about leaving your mark that is critical to human beings. Even an otherwise utilitarian piece of something might have something that is either a proto-symbol or a personal mark.

Whenever humans are confronted with too much of an urban reality, or a reality that feels too inhuman, that feels too threatening or that becomes too impersonal, you see graffiti.

I remember the first time I went to New York, everyone where I was staying was saying, “ah, the graffiti on the trains is terrible!” ... Then I saw a couple of trains that had been bombed [meaning sprayed entirely with graffitti], and they're beautiful. It was amazing, the self-expression and all this human marking in a reality that’s quite cold-- it’s all this metal, dark, dirty. You know the subways. Yet, here’s all these beautiful colorsl. 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 out there that people studied where people got to where, "Oh, I'll do this mark, and I'll do this mark and eventually I end up with a language."

I was looking for a visual language. I knew things were really starting to click, when you make just a couple of marks and suddenly the whole thing comes together. Then you know there’s something working there in terms of consciousness that says, “Oh, this does something, and before it wasn’t doing anything.”

After my last exhibition a critic talked about [my painting in terms of] certain kinds of realities, formations in reality like subatomic particles, or the deep-space clustering of galaxies. 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 this other reality, there’s this strange way the paintings are echo-ing these structures and visual realities of these other things; even though I've 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, very small realities. Or at least echoing their properties.

* see Jae Carlssen, Tabula Rasa, catalogue essay for the Erik ReeL exhibition at the 643 Project Space, April 2013.