Erik ReeL 20 20
[Full text of catalogue essay, reformatted for display in this webiste]
By Alexis Kinoshita
In the fall of 2019 Erik ReeL and his wife, Rhonda P. Hill, relocated to Portland, Oregon. It had been a trying trek, first as fire refugees, evacuating on foot with only what they could carry and their beloved dog, from the Thomas Fire on the central coast of California that displaced a quarter of a million people.
Reel and his family were lucky. Their apartment was still there when they could return and his studio above the Pacific ocean in downtown Ventura, California, was fortunately located in a narrow ash shadow and completely spared, even from ash and smoke damage. But the toxic ash and smoke had penetrated even closed windows in their residence and the building itself had to first be de-toxed and cleaned before any residents could live there again.
That began a year-long search for a new home and studio. Anywhere was an option, but what mattered most of all was an appropriate location where they could find the right place, climate, and a thriving art, theatre, writing, and music scene. They finally decided on Portland, Oregon. Reel, being originally from Seattle and having resided there for three decades was excited about returning to the Pacific Northwest and its visual arts scene, fully recognizing that the Seattle and Pacific Northwest he had left 39 years before no longer existed. Finally they were settled in, ReeL had prepared his studio and was painting and the couple were ready to step out and get acquainted with their new city and its art scene when COVID-19 hit. ReeL, already with multiple underlying conditions that would make him a high risk for this virus, as well as already hindering his travel, had also just found out that he had type 1 diabetes.
In spite of this, or perhaps even inspired by long hours of isolation, no interruptions and a new studio, ReeL immediately produced a substantial and newly invigorated body of work, which he is still working on as this modest little book goes to press. Grace Moen, whose poem starts things off is actually one of the few people who has seen ReeL’s recent work live, other than a few very close friends and associates, and of course, Rhonda.
That will soon change, I am sure. The work ReeL has created over the last decade has a consistency, quality, and nuance of singular effect that needs to be seen live by a lot of people.
He has rarely exhibited his largest work, nor many of his works on paper, both of which represent powerful facets of his project. Dealers and museum curators, so far, seem to be most interested in showing his modest canvases--after all, they are the easiest to ship, install, show, and sell. But it is in the works on paper that ReeL explores his almost daily exploration before he finds something to take further onto canvas.
The larger works, which ReeL himself says are his most comfortable scale to work on, seem to repeatedly pull out something more, something a bit extra that never appears in the smaller work. In his last solo show on the California Central Coast, at the GreySpace gallery in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, it was one of these larger works, Babel [opus 2309, created in 2017], that seemed to steal everyone’s attention.
Erik ReeL was born Gary Robert Meriweather Erik Reel in December 1952 to an aeronautics engineer and a mother who had a degree in psychology. Perceptual psychology, with a minor in English and another minor in Botany. His mother was working as an assistant to her old Botany professor at the University of Wyoming, a Dr Solheim, a mycologist, when World War II ended and a horde of veterans descended on American colleges with tuition grants from the new GI Bill.
It was one of these GIs who finally caught his mother’s eye and they were married soon after in a small ceremony with the requisite two witnesses. It turns out that both of ReeL’s parents had to break a date with someone else to make the wedding appointment. ReeL’s father was noted as a gifted mechanic, who, after getting the engine of an old tractor, long abandoned on ReeL’s paternal grandfather’s Wyoming ranch, working again--when he was barely nine years old, was then put in charge of all the farm's machinery, which included several water pumps and a windmill as well as all the vehicles. ReeL says that this story was always told by his father’s closest sister, ReeL’s aunt Irene, who says everyone was just sitting down to dinner and his father was not there and his grandfather was considering how severe a whipping was in order, when everyone could hear, from off in the far pasture, a halting chug-chug-chugging. Everything stopped at the table, listening to the unexpected sound. Then the halting chugging turned into a smoother, deep rumble of a well-oiled tractor engine. It couldn’t be possible, grandfather ReeL evidently cried and cursed as everyone rushed from the table and ran down to the pasture to see the tractor chugging away.
There’s evidently a long history in ReeL’s family of fathers and sons not necessarily getting along that well, especially eldest sons, itching to get along in the world and not wanting to pay much attention to their father’s plans for them. ReeL’s father left the ranch long before his grandfather wanted such a thing, and headed out West to Bremerton Washington to live with a maternal uncle and his sons and work in the Bremerton shipyards as a welder.
When World War II started, ReeL’s father lied about his age and signed up. ReeL says a lot of the men in his family matured early and also all being tall, could often pass for older. ReeL says he himself could buy liquor without ever being carded when he was 14, in a state with a 21-year-old drinking age. The first time he was carded was on his 21st birthday, by intention, so he could get the free pitchers of beers that were then offered on people’s 21st birthday and first legal drinking age. The waitress was a bit miffed, evidently, since he’d already been drinking at one of the bars for two years already when they first carded him.
As for ReeL’s father, when the army evaluated recruits’ mechanical abilities, immediately threw him into a special group that was shipped off to get aviation mechanic training in Los Angeles. ReeL senior had originally wanted to volunteer for the 10th Mountain Men as many of his old Wyoming friends were doing or were already in, and he was also known for his tracking and hunting abilities and possessed a certain connection with animals as well as machines. It turns out that both of ReeL’s parents were excellent shots, as was ReeL’s younger brother [the middle of three sons]. ReeL tells of how his mother, when he was young, and they were driving out in the more desolate stretches in the Rockies would like to shoot jackrabbits out of the car window with her revolver. And there was hunting and fishing: ReeL claims he was nine years old before he ate store-bought meat.
But it was his mother, who had been her high school’s straight-A valedictorian, thus earning a full scholarship to the state’s university, the University of Wyoming, and a godfather who had married his mother’s best friend in college, who spurred ReeL’s intellectual interests. It was his mother who encouraged his artistic interest. She had wanted to paint, but abandoned this after some attempts at oil painting. ReeL eventually suggested she try water colors, which was what he calls a “quicker” medium seeing that his mother had a certain impatience in her approach and she became a rather accomplished water colorist, showing and selling in local shows. But it was the mother who learned from the son. ReeL remembers the day when his mother gave him her oils and asked him to teach her how to draw. By the time he was 6 years old, ReeL was given access to a supply of typing paper in a special drawer and had his own, small set of pencils. He says he does not remember a time when he was not drawing and he has vivid memories from before his fourth birthday.
His mother loved to read. ReeL evidently read everything in the house when growing up, and his mother checked books out of the adult section of the local library because they wouldn’t let him into that section until he was 13. When ReeL was finally able to use the adult section he discovered that they had an LP section containing both jazz and symphonic music that piqued ReeL’s ravenous and eclectic musical curiosity. These LPs of the 50s and 60s often had black and white photographs of the musicians and composers on their covers which became a major source for ReeL’s drawings when he as a young teenager. He seems to have perfected a softly shaded rendering style by the time he was 14.
I give all this background because the artist is a big guy, six feet five, with a considerable physical presence who seems to have read everything with an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, literature, philosophy and history. Yet, he is as at home in the woods as the city, and clearly has his parents’ connection to nature. One senses he is never that far from the tough Scandinavian ranchers and farmers of his roots. But he is definitely an urban guy and loves cities. Gritty cities. Yet, nature has always played a role, if through nothing else than a lifelong strong commitment to environmental integrity, and ecological issues, reading Bateson’s Toward an Ecology of Mind as soon as it came out.
ReeL began his university studies at Whitman College, originally majoring in Mathematics, and eventually ended up at the University of Washington in Seattle, with some coursework at Berkeley along the way before taking a degree in Art History. He also took studio classes at the UW, navigating toward the triumvirate of Michael Dailey, Robert C. Jones, and Michael Spafford and sitting in on Jacob Lawrence’s critiques. He also took George Tsutakawa’s sumi-e class for the water-color requirement of the studio degree which he did not complete.
After graduating, ReeL taught at the Seattle Central College, teaching color theory, painting, and life drawing, as well as conducting life drawing classes and his color theory class downtown. He taught his color theory class for 11 years to a certain amount of renown. At the same time he began writing art criticism, first introducing criticism into the and/or Notes, and then a weekly column on the arts for the Bellevue Journal-American and reviews of Seattle exhibitions. This expanded to writing for international art magazines, such as Vanguard, in Vancouver, British Columbia, High Performance, in Los Angeles, and ArtEpress in New York city. During this time he had his first museum show at the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art in 1986, as well as several appearances at the Seattle Art Museum.
After leaving Seattle in 1986, ReeL dropped his given first name and starting exhibiting and writing as Erik ReeL [with the final L capitalized], eventually legally changing his first name to Erik. During this time he went almost a decade without exhibiting and eventually stopped publishing any writing. Eventually ReeL gravitated to California, where he did take up reviewing theatre, probably more in order to see a lot of it with his wife, Rhonda P. Hill, both of them enjoying live theatre.
While working with a screen printer in Santa Barbara, ReeL developed a more resilient approach to screen printing, using heat-set inks on fine art papers that avoided the usual soft, easily marred and nicked surfaces of traditional fine art serigraphs. This led to a spate of exhibitions wanting to include his serigraphs, many of which sold out. In 2009 ReeL returned to totally non-objective imagery, which he had tried off and on, alternating with figurative imagery, since his student days, eventually cleaning all references of the material outside world out of his paintings, with the exception of occasional, rather nuanced, signs and words which never take center stage.
Recent exhibitions before moving back to the Pacific Northwest have included a solo exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, where his connections to the Northwest School of Tobey, Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan was in full evidence; a room within a group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara, exhibitions in Argentina and South Korea [at the Czong institute of Contemporary Art, otherwise known as the CICA Museum], the Butler Institute of American Art, and the Museum of Ventura County. ReeL currently resides with his wife, Rhonda P. Hill, and maintains a studio in Portland, Oregon.
text copyright by Alexis Kinoshita, 2020, all rights reserved
text reformatted for display on this website